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GARDENING: Captivating camellias

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Colour your winter garden in the pretty pinks and classic crimsons of the charismatic camellia

Are you looking for an evergreen shrub that copes well in the dappled shade under trees? Look no further than the lovely camellia, queen of the winter garden.

Camellias are native to eastern and southern Asia, from Japan and the surrounds of the Orient, stretching from northern India, to Vietnam, southern China and down through Indonesia. The genus comprises around 250 species. Camellia japonica was a part of Japanese culture from around 300BC.

Some individual specimens in the gardens of the emperor’s palace are believed to be over 500 years old. The leaves of Camellia sinensis are used to brew tea and fittingly called the “tea flower”.

Camellias were introduced to Europe in the 18th century, quickly becoming a sought-after species both there and across the Atlantic Ocean in the US. South Africa’s International Camellia Garden of Excellence is found at the 319-year-old Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West.

Vergelegen Wine Estate’s Camellia Garden of Excellence is one of only 39 acclaimed camellia gardens in the world. Picture: Vergelegen/Supplied

The garden is one of only 39 International Camellia Gardens of Excellence in the world and one of two in the southern hemisphere. “Vergelegen received this international garden accolade nine years ago but the history of camellias at Vergelegen goes back decades,” says resident horticulturist Richard Arm. 

“The earliest camellia plantings consist of classic, pre1940s Camellia japonica cultivars, most of which are now large, mature shrubs. Most of these camellias were planted by Cynthia Barlow after her family bought Vergelegen in 1941.”

Seasonal Colour

A large number of camellia hybrids have been developed by plant breeders throughout the world and most have been derived from three main species which flower at different times of the year. To benefit from year-around colour, plant several different varieties in your garden.

Flowers can be single, semidouble, double, peony, anemone or rose forms. Camellia japonica Winter gardens throughout the country are sporting colours of white, pink and red – with the winter flowering Camellia japonica.

Shrubs are upright and shapely, with glossy, dark green foliage throughout the year. C. japonica thrives in dappled shade under trees or in a container on a patio.

Camellia reticulata The beautiful springflowering camellia has a tree-like growth habit and produces large ruffled blooms in white, pink and crimson. In areas with a cooler climate, C. reticulata can be planted in sun, but in the hotter parts of the country, they need shade from the afternoon sun. Camellia sasanqua 

This autumn flowering variety is able to tolerate a position of sun or semi-shade. The plant has a neat growth habit and is a prolific bloomer. Flower petals are ruffled or fluted and found in white, pink and red, with gold stamens.

Autumn leaves from the oak trees provide the perfect mulch for Vergelegen’s many camellia shrubs. Picture: Supplied/Vergelegen

Camellia sasanqua is more drought-tolerant than other varieties and a popular hedging plant as it responds well to pruning. Hybrid cultivars are develop by crossing two species. Some of the more popular hybrids we see today are winter flowering.

Growing Camellias

Camellias are versatile shrubs that can be used in many ways in the garden – as structural, foundation shrubs; for hedges or espaliers; as tall, slender columns for framing or lollipops grown in containers.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Lucinda’, which produces a semidouble bloom, is often used in espalier or grown in containers. Picture: Supplied/Vergelegen

“Camellias require a slightly acid soil that is well drained and loamy. If they get too dry in summer they do not produce blooms in winter,” explains Arm. “They also need a good layer of mulch to keep the root zone moist in the hot summer months and require reasonable shelter from direct sun.

They do best when they get good light.” What other rules should you follow?

◆ When planting a camellia, dig a square hole 60cm, both wide and deep.

◆ Soil should not be water-logged. Add plenty of organic matter to improve drainage.

◆ Camellia leaves should be deep green. Yellowing of the leaves can indicate a nitrogen shortage.

◆ Leaves might also yellow if the plant is exposed to too much sun.

◆ Water regularly during the flower season to reduce the incidence of bud drop.

Bud drop can be an indication of improper watering or a natural process if too many buds are produced. Picture: Lukas Otto

◆ In the hotter months, the plant’s root zone can be kept cool with mulch. Add a layer of compost, pine needles, pine bark or leaf mould.

◆ Apply slow-release fertiliser once plants have bloomed.

Book a camellia garden tour

Vergelegen Estate horticulturist Richard Arm admires rare South African camellia ‘Laurian Brown’ (Camellia reticulata, RSA). Picture: Vergelegen/Supplied

The winter flowering pink, red and white camellias are blossoming at Vergelegen Wine Estate, just in time for the annual Camellia Weekend. The Somerset West estate will offer two daily guided tours of its International Camellia Garden of Excellence, followed by refreshments in the Stables family restaurant. 

Tours are led by estate horticulturist Richard Arm.

Date: July 27 and 28.

Times: Tours depart from Stables at 9am and 2.30pm.

Cost: R140/person (includes the entrance fee, tea/ coffee and a selection of cakes).

Booking is essential. Call: 021 847 2156 or email

For more information, visit:


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