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GARDEN LIFE: Treat from the east which just loves the west.


LAST summer I painted my house biscuity yellow instead of white. I like it. Its new mellowness seems to blend much better with the surrounding garden.

But any day now there's going to be a moment of truth. My big camellia that thrives on the front wall next to the kitchen is about to burst into flower. And I've a sinking feeling that a couple of hundred huge sugar-pink blooms might clash horribly with my smart new walls.

This shrub's annual flowering is one of the high spots of the year. But camellia Leonard Messel earns its place for the rest of the time as well. Its glittering evergreen leaves and tightly elegant habit of growth look good even in the depths of winter.

It's one of those plants that I feel privileged to own. But at 12 years old, it's far too big and grand to move.

Camellias are among the few A-list megastars of the garden. When they were first brought to this country from China and Japan, no-one could believe that anything so exotic could be hardy.

For decades they were pampered in glasshouses, where they suffered from heat and disease.

Eventually, some brave soul tried them in an open garden and found they were as hardy as laurels. We should all be grateful and remember that the best gardeners take chances.

But there is a snag. Hardy they may be, but getting them to flower in the coldest gardens is another matter.

Camellia flowers are prone to frost damage. Books advise growing them in shade, where overhanging branches give protection from frost and icy winds. As usual, this approach works brilliantly in the south of the British Isles, but Scottish gardeners need a completely different set of rules.

Camellias need warmth, moisture and sunlight in late summer to bring about flowering. In Scotland they'll thrive in shade, but will flower poorly or not at all. The cooler the climate, the more sun they need.

Unfortunately, there comes a point where their leaves are scorched, but there hasn't been enough sun to set the flowers.

This is why so many gardeners in the north and centre of our country have failed with this stunner of a shrub.

So if your garden's chilly, avoid any camellia in the japonica family. These are the original introductions and include many magnificent varieties, including my own Leonard Messel. Look out instead for any labelled x-williamsii. This cross, originally made in 1925, is one of the most useful and important ever made. The resulting camellias are very beautiful but are also tough and resilient. They don't need as much heat to flower well and are perfect for northern gardens.

Don't feel you're settling for second-best. The most readily available williamsii camellia, the Donation is reckoned to be the best variety raised in the entire 20th century. It's a magnificent orchid pink with large double rosette-like blooms.

Equally beautiful is J. C. Williams with single rose-pink flowers centred with golden stamens. Or there's the peony-centred Anticipation, white China Clay, or lavender-tinted Waterlily.

These are the camellias that do well in the open garden, often in cold and draughty spots. In colder gardens they might need the protection of a wall out of the morning sun so that frosted flowers don't turn brown. They deserve the best. I'd even consider repainting my house yet again to give my jewel-like camellia the best possible setting.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 6, 2002
Previous Article:GARDEN LIFE: PLANT OF THE WEEK: Brunnera macrophylla.

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