Words: Vivienne Bailey
Camellia sasanqua bring a zing of welcome colour to gardens during autumn and early winter, brightening dreary corners and lifting wintry spirits.
These undemanding, yet top-performing plants have smaller, daintier leaves and supple, more willowy branches than their spring-flowering cousins. Flowers are small to medium, often single with showy, yellow stamens. Many are sweetly scented (in a mossy sort of way), and come in a wide range of colours. ‘Setsugekka’, ‘Mine-no-yuki’, ‘Early Pearly’, and ‘Gay Sue’, are popular white varieties, and the compact, upright ‘Yuletide’ has single, scarlet-red blooms contrasting with prominent, golden stamens (this looks lovely in a black pot).
Sasanqua blooms are softer and lack the defined form and substance of most later-flowering camellia types. This is an advantage when flowers fall as they break up quickly, thus avoiding a brown sludge at the plant’s base.
Originating in the forests of Japan, free-flowering evergreen sasanqua make versatile landscaping plants, either as loose, open screens, columnar forms framing gates and entrances, topiary subjects, or ground covers. The smaller-growing varieties, such as ‘Bonsai Baby’, are ideal for containers and pots (choose a quality potting mix and a good-sized pot).
The shiny, pointed (sometimes curled) leaves clip easily, and quickly form a dense hedge. Strong-growing ‘Plantation Pink’ is a good variety to try (it makes a beautiful specimen plant as well). Other reliable, pink-flowering hedges include the mauve-pink, paeony form ‘Jennifer Susan’, semi-double ‘Elfin Rose’, and single-flowered ‘Tanya’.
Plants with pliable, willowy stems, like the rose-red ‘Dazzler’, can be trained as semi-weeping specimens or trailed along wires to form narrow hedges. They can also be espaliered to provide a softening and decorating effect on blank walls, fences or lattice work.
Known as “the tough camellia”, sasanqua provide structure and substance all year round, for despite the beauty and variety of the flowers, it is the glossy, dark-green foliage that produces the versatility so loved by landscape designers and gardeners.
Once established, sasanqua camellias need little care, and will grow anywhere from 4m to 9m. Stake your plants when planting as new growth on often bends over until wood hardens. By staking you will produce a larger plant more quickly.
Although disliking hot, dry positions, sasanqua will tolerate wind and exposure to full sun, unlike many others of their family (‘Setsugekka’, in particular, seems to cope with coastal conditions).
Camellias are amazingly disease-free and hardy, although bright yellow or blotched leaves may signal a virus infection. There’s not a lot you can do to combat this, and, although unsightly, it will not weaken plants. Bud-drop can affect plants in the middle of their flowering season – this may have been caused by plants drying out in late summer and early autumn.
Camellias are happy in an acid, well-drained soil. If your soil is very heavy add a generous amount of compost to improve drainage.
Apply a slow-release fertiliser just once a year – don’t over fertilise. More camellias are killed by overfeeding than starvation. Mulch with a good layer of compost (one of the best mulches is chopped pine needles – like many acid-loving shrubs, they prefer plant-derived composts to animal manures). In spring, when new growth is tender, you may have a problem with scale insects, leaf-roller caterpillar or aphids – these should be treated with an insecticide. Check in autumn for passion vine hoppers, which often infest plants.
Over the first summer, mulch generously and water well. Give the plant a good flooding once a week – this will get water down to where the root system is. A daily sprinkling can do more harm than good as it attracts roots to the surface.
Prune your camellia to shape, after flowering, from an early stage. Use secateurs to thin and shorten branches as hedge clippers promote dense growth. Keep plants reasonably open to allow air to circulate in the middle.
There are no strict rules with pruning – but there’s little point in letting a camellia grow so high all its flowers are out of sight. Plants with upright habits may be kept slender by training to a single leader and, after flowering, shortening and thinning lateral branches.