Spring comes early to Mount Edgcumbe, lying as it does on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound. In its favoured position, the delicate flowers of the camellias appear from January onwards, making it a welcome start to the beginning of the year.
The camellia collection of Mount Edgcumbe was started in 1976 with a gift of 70 camellias from the International Camellia Society. These were planted in the formal gardens by members of the society from various parts of the world during their visit to Cornwall that year.
In the following year, 100 camellias were dug up and carefully transported 50 miles from David Trehane’s garden at Truro and re-planted in the higher amphitheatre, where the majority of the collection is housed.
Since then, cuttings of a great many varieties and species have been obtained and we have to thank the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden at Wisley, the Crown Estate Windsor Great Park and The National Trust. We now have some 1,000 varieties and species in the collection.
We organise conducted camellia walks in the National Collection at Mount Edgcumbe, or if you wish to explore on your own there is an information interpretation trail to follow which gives handy hints and tips about camellias including how they can be affected by different pests and diseases
“We now have some 1,000 varieties and species in the collection.”
An acid soil is needed. If pot grown use an ericaceous compost.
In the wild camellias grow in a moist climate so keep them moist but never sodden. Do not neglect watering in late summer through to early spring, especially in pot grown plants. This will prevent bud drop. Never wet ahead of an anticipated big freeze. Soft water or rain water is a must, hard tap water will slowly change the soil or compost from acid to alkaline and the camellia will turn yellow.
Choose a warm, even hot location that also offers light shade, and away from the milder South West Counties, a site that protects the plant from early morning sun exposure. A fast thaw under the morning sun may damage frosted buds. Plant with a generous addition of moisture retaining humus (peat, leaf mould, compost etc. but not mushroom compost which contains lime).
Use an ericaceous compost. Camellias are an excellent patio plant and good for a cool conservatory when the flowers are larger than if grown outdoors. They can be used briefly as a house plant but only for a limited period as the buds begin to fatten and colour. Remove to outside after flowering (three to five weeks). The higher the temperature the shorter the flowering period.
Moderate but regular feeding March to July, e.g. general liquid feed along with watering changing to tomato feed in June and July. For plants in open ground 2 applications of Vitax Q4 or similar.
Do not be afraid to prune quite drastically if it is ever needed. Prune away long growth or punch-out tip growth to tighten and shape the plant immediately after flowering, but not later than mid May.
Too much sun can cause sun scald on leaves of some varieties. This is a paling or yellowing of the leaves and is often found in white or pale coloured varieties. A shady site will rectify this.
Frost may harm opened flowers but will not harm un-opened buds. The bush after a frost will subsequently re-flush with new blooms. Unlike rhododendron, camellias bloom successively and not in one flush. Do not allow a pot root ball to freeze hard. Root freezing is not likely to be a problem with plants in open ground. An organic mulch will help to prevent such a freeze and will conserve moisture too.
There are few problems if cultural conditions are right but look out for the following:
Sudden Oak Death
Phytophthora ramorum is a fungus causing the syndrome ‘Sudden Oak Death’. This ravages the camellia flowers rapidly reducing them to a brown dead mess. It is very bad in California and New Zealand and it is spreading in the UK.
As the camellia blooms the spores of the fungus attach to the flowers which turns them brown, mushy and kills the flower. This only affects the bloom and not the camellia bush. The blooms fall to the ground and the fungus enters its dormant stage, forming minute black lumps. The fungus becomes active in the spring releasing the spores in the breeze and so the cycle begins again.
The only way to control an affected plant is strict hygiene. As soon as the flowers fall to the ground they should be removed and burned. Also remove dead blooms from the bush, and the cycle should be broken so next year the flowers will be clean.
You can identify the fungus by a silver furry ring around the base of the flower where the flower was attached to the plant. Black sooty mould may be seen on leaves, this is due to scale insects on the underside of the leaves above. Treat these insects, not the mould. Spray with a bio-friendly chemical. The sooty mould can then be washed off with soapy water.
Camellia Flower Blight
This was discovered in the United Kingdom several years ago. Originally from China and Japan it soon spread to America, New Zealand and Europe. The damage caused only affects the flowers.
Unlike other fungi, flower blight attacks the blooms as they open with the petals first showing a rusty brown colour. The flower turns brown starting from the centre of the flower and spreading to the tips and the flower could be dead within three days.
The fungal spores can travel up to 2 kilometres. The only remedy is to remove all fallen petals and flowers and keep the ground clear at all times. The fungus can be identified by a silver ring of fungal tissue at the base of the flower.