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Summer flowering camellias ? A cloak and dagger story
Last Updated: 26/10/2014

Do you dream of having camellia flowers in the garden all year round ? Yes ? Or maybe not !

Its one of those challenges that plant breeders just love to face and we must admit that its also one of those situations where its quite satisfying to achieve something a bit out of the ordinary. Now it’s beginning to look possible.

Down in the tropical far south of the province of Guangxi in China a Chinese botanist who was actually looking for palm trees noticed a flash of red on some bushes nearby, thought they were azaleas or rhododendrons, picked a sprig and took it back to show Professor Chang, a noted ‘world’ botanical expert on these things. He confirmed that it was in fact an undiscovered new camellia species, and promptly handed it over to his wife who was in charge of the herbarium where it was duly dried and pressed to conserve it and its details recorded with all the information required for botanical registration. It was all very exciting as this was a brand new species that was significantly different to any other camellia. The find was published in a Chinese botanical publication and given the name Camellia changii in honour of Professor Chang.
Then the plot thickened. A botanist from another academic institution arrived and asked to see the specimen. Somewhat surprisingly she was shown it. Well, who doesn’t want to show off a little ? She was accompanied by her husband, a botanical illustrator and, it is said, he did a sketch of the dried specimen as well as recording the location where it was found.

They realized the significance of the find and collected their own samples. To cut a long story short their institution recorded the camellia as ‘Camellia azalea’ in a different botanical publication. This was an internationally recognized publication and, sadly for the original finders had precedence over their registration. Since then a battle has quietly raged with those of us who support Professor Chang and his team feeling a little sore and sad for them, but helpless as we see Camellia azalea being extolled around the world.

So what is all the fuss about ? Well, this camellia has leaves that are narrow and quite thick, looking like those of many azaleas, bushes are dense and rounded and the flowers are simple with 5-9 distinct rose/pink petals. Unlike most camellias this species produces blooms at every season. There are two peaks, one in late summer and the other in spring, with smaller flushes of flowers in between.
Some of you may remember when ‘all year round chrysanthemums’ were first introduced back in the 1960’s ? Many people said,” Oh they’ll never catch on”, but they did. You can find ‘pot mums’ throughout the year in florists shops, and sprays in buckets at the local garage.
It is this possibility that is driving today’s camellia hybridists to work hard and fast, using this discovery to try to produce ‘all year round camellias’.

Their first and major problem is that they are dealing with a tropical/sub tropical species that is (a) not hardy and (b) needs hot conditions to form and develop its flower buds. The ‘chrysanthemum boys’, ( Searle and Machin), used artificial lights and blackout cloth to manipulate the hours of daylight and darkness to achieve their success to get the balance between growth and flowering. I’m sure the camellia scientists will work out their own methods to manipulate the natural tendencies of these hybrids to achieve the commercial success that is the star on the horizon.
Camellia azalea is not easy to grow and produce flowers in temperate climates so it is being used as a parent by hybridists. Combined with specially selected varieties it is hoped that a series of new varieties that are attractive and rewarding with flowers produced in all seasons will eventually be available around the world.

Professor Gao, another doyenne of the Chinese camellia world, visited Trehane nursery in 2008 and swept up a collection of plants of hardy, free flowering varieties to take back for his work. He is a good friend so I don’t mind telling you that he had to be restrained as he was found in areas where some of our own new varieties are in short supply and not yet ready for sale ! He collected from other sources too and has produced a number of hybrids from this union of C. azalea and these hardy camellias, that are now under trial and assessment and being gradually introduced in China.
The production nursery he works with is huge and very ‘commercial’ so they are naturally confining sales to the massive Chinese market before releasing these hybrids to chosen outlets in the rest of the world.

Trehane Nursery is on the list to receive some plants to try out. Lorraine and Simon, who do such a good job looking after the nursery can look forward to having these ‘new babies’ to look after but we don’t know their arrival time--- yet.
We are very much looking to the future here but patience will be needed. As you know camellias are not like tomatoes; it takes several years to grow plants to a decent size and we don’t want to import plants and launch them without assessing them here first.

©Jennifer Trehane. 25/10/2014.

Information in this article should not be re-published without permission from the author.

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