Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Jack Frost makes an appearance

The arrival of Anzac Day coincided with the first frosts in many places in Wairarapa, as it often does.

Although the frost was not particularly severe, it was a subtle reminder that the seasons are changing. Autumn leaves are colouring and falling and some of the autumnal flowers are starting to appear.

Just down the road, someone planted a hedge of sasanqua camellias, and several of them were in flower. The plants have been placed close to the edge of the property and will eventually grow too wide for the site, but I guess that is a concern for the future.

Sasanqua camellias are derived from the wild species of that name, a plant that grows naturally in the southern islands of Japan. The Japanese cultivated it for practical purposes rather than ornamental, making a tea from its leaves [the true tea plant is quite closely related] while the seed was sometimes used for making an oil.

In Western gardens this evergreen shrub is valued for its tough manner of growth and for the beauty of its flowers. It also has another very important attribute – its early flowering means that it escapes the predation of camellia flower blight, a fungus disease that has made growing the later spring-flowering camellias such a frustration.

Although the flowers are generally nowhere near as large as the blooms of either the Japonica camellias or their aristocratic cousins the reticulatas, they compensate for that by carrying them in great profusion.

The foliage is also rather smaller than most other camellias, which means this species lends itself well to hedging and other forms of controlled growth – topiary for example. The leaves have a bronzy overcast when they first appear in the spring, but they soon darken to glossy green.

The range of colours is not great in this species – basically white through pink to something approaching red. There are many single forms, and several that are more or less double, but none have the exquisite formal double form exhibited by ‘Waterlily’ or other Japonica varieties.

I think the newly-planted hedge down the road may be one of the oldest of the cultivars available in New Zealand and one of the most popular – ‘Setsugekka’. This was introduced from Japan in 1898 so it has been around for a while, flaunting its large, single white blooms. Each of the petals is slightly wavey and the centre is highlighted with a big boss of golden stamen, giving each flower the look of a poached egg.

It is one of the quicker-growing varieties, which is why it is so popular as a hedging plant. It can also be planted or even grown as a standard.

We grow a different white variety – ‘Mine-No Yuki’, which apparently means ‘Snow on the Ridge’. Ours was treated badly as a young plant, and grows at an odd angle, but it does mean that its double white flowers [smaller than ‘Setsugekka’] are well presented.

There is another double white form that does well – ‘Early Pearly’. The name tells you everything – it is early flowering and have pearlescent tones, with a hint of pink on the outer edge of the petals. This is another vigorous variety.

If you want to go the whole hog on white flowers edged with pink, there is another old variety that will fit the bill – ‘Apple Blossom’. The flowers are obviously the same colour as apple blossoms – its single white flowers have strong edge of deep pink that flushes lighter across the flower. This is another strong growing variety.

A range of newer hybrids has been bred in Australia, all forenamed with Paradise, and there is an updated version of ‘Apple Blossom’ called ‘Paradise Vanessa’. This variety has semi-double flowers with the same colouration. ‘Paradise Blush’ is similar, but the colouration is toned down even more, with just a blush of pink. ‘Paradise Helen’ is from the same range of hybrids and takes the tone down another step. It has pink buds which open to pure white flowers.

I think one of the best of this range is ‘Paradise Hilda’, which has moderate sized bright pink flowers of an open peony shape. It is a reliable bloomer over a sustained period. ‘Paradise Belinda’ has mid-pink flowers with petaloid stamen in the centre.

If you are looking for a plain pink form, I think the old ‘Plantation Pink’ single-flowered cultivar is as good as any. It is tough and carries lots of cup-shaped flowers of single bright pink, with the usual boss of stamen in the centre.

Sasanqua camellias are easy-care plants – they do not need a lot of cossetting. Like most camellias, they will do best on slightly acidic soil, and prefer some shade of possible, but equally will usually be fine in full sun.

They do not seem to attract any diseases or bugs, and apart from the occasional trim and an annual feed of camellia fertilizer, they will need no special care.

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