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Japonica or williamsii hybrid - which Camellia to choose
Last Updated: 12/02/2015

What’s in a name - Camellia japonica or Camellia x williamsii?

If you’ve been looking for a camellia to buy then you’ve probably come across these names and may be wondering which is the best to grow. In this article we’ll look at the differences between these two groups of Camellias, and their relative merits.

Camellia japonica

This Camellia species occurs naturally across large areas of south-eastern Asia, including parts of China, and Korea but particularly in Japan, hence the name. Over many hundreds of years the plants were cultivated in both Japan and China, often grown around temples, and different flower colours and forms were selected from the wild plants and propagated. In the early 1800’s European traders began to bring some of these varieties back to the West, where plant nurseries across Europe continued to cross different varieties to produce an even greater range of flowers. The vast majority of camellias grown in gardens around the world today are forms of Camellia japonica derived by breeding from the wild form.

Camellia x williamsii

In the early years of the 20 th Century plant hunters brought thousands of new plants back to Europe from the East, amongst which was another Camellia species, Camellia saluenensis, which in the wild produces an abundance of single flowers ranging in colour from pink through to white. Seeds of C.saluenensis were given to a number of plant enthusiasts, including J.C.Williams of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall, and Col. Stephenson Clarke of Borde Hill in Sussex, both of whom grew plants which they then used to cross-breed with various forms of C. japonica. The resulting hybrids were found to have great merit as garden plants and were named as williamsii hybrids in recognition of the work carried out by J.C.Williams. The ‘x’ in the name Camellia x williamsii indicates that the plant is a hybrid of two distinct species, in this case Camellia japonica and Camellia saluenensis.

Which to choose?

Both japonicas and williamsii hybrids have their merits. Japonica varieties are much more numerous, so there is a far greater choice of flower colour and form than for the williamsii hybrids, and they are also just as hardy. We often get requests for williamsii hybrids because customers have heard that they are hardy, but in fact their winter hardiness comes from their japonica parentage. The real advantage of the hybrids is that they will generally flower well with lower light levels than japonicas, so they are particularly suited to a gloomy northern European climate, and are always recommended for a shady location.

The table below summarises the pros and cons of each:

Camellia japonica

Camellia x williamsii

Generally very hardy and can be grown throughout most of the UK

Similar level of hardiness to the japonicas

Best grown in part shade, with sufficient sunlight to allow flower buds to form. Should be given more sun when grown in northern parts of the UK

Best grown in part shade, but will flower well with little direct sunlight. Can be grown against north facing walls and in similar shady positions

May not produce as many flowers overall as williamsii hybrids

Most produce an abundance of flowers

Flowering period typically 4-6 weeks, with some notable exceptions such as Gloire de Nantes, Nobilissima and Takanini which are considerably longer

Flowering period can be as long as 12 weeks, but dependent on the weather – a very mild spell can make the buds open more quickly

Dead flowers fall from the bush for many varieties, but on others the brown flowers remain on the plant and require ‘dead-heading’ – this is usually on some older varieties, such as Gloire de Nantes

Flowers usually fall from the plant when finished (unless browned by frosts)

A huge range of flower colour, form and size

A more limited range of flower choice, mostly shades of pink with a few white and red.

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