Lustrous beauty
Thursday, 07 February 2013

Lustrous beauty

Our columnist’s sole Camellia brings her untold joy. Perhaps it’s time to plant a few more…

Written by Sarah Langton-Lockton
Camellia japonica is allowed a brief entry in Christopher Lloyd’s wonderfully opinionated book Foliage Plants (for which the criterion for inclusion is that the leaves must be ornamental), because it has, he wrote, in many of its cultivars, ‘a good leaf: dark, lustrous and ever-present’, although, he continues, ‘it could hardly claim to greater weight than the blossom’. As usual, the judgement of this consummate plantsman is spot-on: it is the combination of lustrous leaf – and flower – that makes the camellia so special.

Like many a small-scale gardener, I confess to having a solitary specimen – not in the usual place, bang in the centre of the front garden, which barely has room for a few large pots alongside the burgeoning line-up of wheelie bins – but in a sheltered spot to one side of the pergola. My camellia is C. japonica ‘Margaret Davies’. I enjoy the predictable things – the glossy, evergreen leaves, the semi-double, creamy white fl owers, irregularly flecked with pink – but also the progress of the flower buds that form in late summer and autumn and swell in the dreariest days of winter.

Despite their exotic appearance, camellias are hardy and easy to grow. They do not, however, flourish in an exposed front garden with indifferent soil. They prefer a sheltered position in light shade, and need a freedraining acid soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. If your soil is alkaline, you can grow camellias in ericaceous compost in containers. Feed your camellias well with good compost or other organic fertilisers, such as seaweed, and water copiously in the growing season, particularly when flower buds are forming. If necessary, prune lightly after fl owering. A camellia that has outgrown its position can be cut hard back into old wood.

When camellias were first introduced in the late 18th century, they were thought to be tender. Camellia houses were built for prize specimens, some of which have survived with their original plants. One of the most splendid is the Grade I listed Chiswick House Conservatory, designed by Samuel Ware, the architect of the Burlington Arcade, for the 6th Duke of Devonshire in 1813.

Ninety-six metres long, with a glazed dome at its centre and glass pavilions at each end, the conservatory at fi rst housed fruit. In 1828 the duke replaced the fruit with camellias, a fashionable and expensive new arrival from China. The conservatory was damaged by bombs in 1940 and gradually fell into disrepair, until the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, with help and funding of £12m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and the London Borough of Hounslow, was able to embark on major rescue and restoration works.

The original camellias survived thanks to the devotion of three local members of the International Camellia Society. The plants stayed in situ while the conservatory was dismantled and rebuilt around them. The work was completed in 2010 and the fi rst Chiswick House Camellia Festival took place in 2011. This year the festival runs from 16 February to 17 March. Visitors will be able to see magnifi cent specimens of 33 varieties, many of them surviving from the original order. The plants are all members of the species C. japonica, and include ‘Middlemist’s Red’, a deep-pink camellia brought to Britain from China in 1804 by Londoner John Middlemist, a nurseryman from Shepherd’s Bush. There is only one other known plant of this variety, in New Zealand.

The Chiswick House Camellia Festival 2013, Chiswick House Gardens, London runs from 16 February to 17 March. Conservatory opening hours: 10.30am to 4pm. Advance bookings and information: 0844-477 1000, Tickets £8 (under 16s free), including Camellia and Conservatory guide.

Foliage Plants by Christopher Lloyd is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £12.99.

Strawberry gardening

A strawberry summer

Even after the catastrophic growing conditions and meagre crops of 2012, hope springs eternal when a gardener gets hold of a good catalogue. I am planning to extend my fruit-growing capability this year, and I particularly like the Fruit and Vegetables catalogue of DT Brown for the clarity of its information and layout and its high-quality images.

I have ordered some runners of Manille, a Junefruiting strawberry from the same breeder as my outright favourite, Mara des Bois. Manille is described as having very large, bright-red fruits, which, like most French strawberries, are very aromatic. Most importantly, says this persuasive catalogue, the flavour is superb.

Reine des Vallées is an alpine strawberry that will tolerate shade and produces tiny, intensely sweet fruit over a long period. Alpine and wild strawberries make good ground cover (I remember the latter in the overgrown vicarage gardens of my country childhood), and grow happily at the front of a border.

Five runners of either variety cost £5.95; order on 0845-371 0532 or

Chimonanthus praecox

Plant of the week

Chimonanthus praecox thrives in a sunny site. The intense scent from its yellow flowers is intoxicating on the wintry air. Eventual height and spread: 2.5cm to 4 metres. For stockists, visit the RHS Plant Finder at

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