Chameleon camellias

Camellia collection curator Philip Bowyer-Smyth at the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Camellia collection curator Philip Bowyer-Smyth at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

IN THE recent drought, certain plants were labelled pariahs due to their perceived water-hungry status. Hydrangeas, of course, were top of the list, as were azaleas and camellias.

Despite being considered too precious for Australia's hot and dry environment, and a negative throwback to the English horticultural aesthetic when we should all be planting natives, the three species managed to survive even though they didn't always look their best.

What a difference two years and bountiful rain makes. Hydrangeas were lush and floriferous over summer, and azaleas recovered and this season will be stunning when the flowers emerge. Camellias have never looked so good since the sasanquas burst on to the floral scene in early autumn.

Walk around any suburb or country town and most gardens will have at least one camellia in full flower in various shades of pink, red and white. The camellia collection at Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens is a joy to behold years after the devastation wreaked on it the week before the Black Saturday bushfires when just about every leaf was scorched due to the radiant heat on a 40-plus-degree day.

Hard work has gone into restoring the collection - which numbers about 800 plants spread throughout the gardens, including 200 in the camellia beds - to its former glory and you can see the results in four guided walks starting on Wednesday and learn about these showy cultivars, hybrids and species camellias.

A member of the Theaceae family, the camellia genus has more than 300 species that are native to the mountainous regions of east Asia. The genus was named after the Jesuit botanist Georg Josef Kamel by Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus.

Evergreen shrubs, camellias are grown in gardens for their ornamental value but variations of C. sinensis have been cultivated commercially for centuries in the production of tea, including green tea, which is now produced in the Kiewa Valley in Victoria and exported to Japan. A case of taking coal to Newcastle!

The common camellia, or C. japonica, has more than 2000 cultivars in the group and is perhaps the most popular of the camellia family. It is compact and flowers from early winter to spring. Great for displaying in pots, as an informal hedge and mass planted in the garden.

C. sasanqua is native to Japan and the first of the camellias to flower in early autumn, with a show until winter. Flowers are mostly singles or semi doubles ranging from white to reds and deep pink. I have a pink variety informally espaliered on a wall near the back door and it has rewarded me for years with masses of blooms, even in the drought.

Curator of the RBG's camellia collection, Philip Bowyer-Smyth, says his favourites are the species varieties as they are true to type - in other words, as you would find them growing au naturel in the wilds of Asia - and their colours are more delicate than the cultivars, including a yellow one that is rare in the camellia family, with a fine example in the collection called C. nitidissima var. macrocarpa. He says camellias are forgiving as long as they're planted in the right position - shady but not too dark - and can be easily propagated and moved, even in flower, if they are in the wrong spot.

Recently the collection received international standing, having been declared a Garden of Excellence by the International Camellia Society. This is the second time the collection has been honoured, the last time in 2001, and is the only botanic garden in Australia to receive the recognition out of only 17 in the world.

The gardens' camellia collection has been recognised for meeting guidelines espoused by the ICS, including variety, representation, health and labelling. In 1996, the collection became the National Reference Collection of the Australian Camellia Research Society, resulting in its first recognition as a Garden of Excellence by the ICS.

The camellias are at their peak in winter and the voluntary guides will point out the different varieties, including 'Spring Festival' (C. cuspidata) and C. trichocarpa, which has a large white flower and yellow stamens and produces a seed the size of an apple. The latter is so special it even has its own map on the RBG website.

C. nokoensis is also in the camellia bed and is a species camellia with masses of small white scented flowers and bright-red new growth. Well worth a look.

On the walks you will also learn the art of making Chinese tea from C. sinensis using the leaves and buds, and then enjoy a cuppa in the tearooms.

■The four walks will be held on Wednesday and August 5, 10 and 19, 10.30am-noon. Meet at the Visitor Centre, Observatory gate. Adults $15, concession $12. Bookings 9252 2429.

This story Chameleon camellias first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.