By mid October most people’s gardens are at best winding down. Such colour as is left is from late and weather battered Dahlias, Fuchsias, Salvias, the odd rose and the like. Very few plants chose late autumn for their main flower display and many gardeners have also given up and hunkered down to wait for spring. One group of plants that enters the stage after the main performance has finished is late flowering Camellias.
The autumn flowering Camellias are usually referred to as “sasanquas”, though Camellia sasanqua is one of a handful of species involved. The earliest flowers usually appear in early October and different varieties extend the flowering period into the new year. Compared to the spring flowering Camellias, the flowers are generally smaller, often single and most have at least some scent.
In general, they both require and happily tolerate much warmer conditions than the spring flowering varieties and in the west of the UK probably perform best in full sun or part shade. In warmer, dryer places they may benefit from a bit more shade. The leaves are relatively small and new growth often red or purple tinged, making them eminently suitable for hedging in places where they grow well. I have seen them used this way to great effect in Hamilton Gardens in New Zealand and the Paradise series, raised by Bob Cherry in Australia, are marketed as hedging plants. They are generally regarded as too slow growing for this usage in the UK.
Left to grow unchecked, most will eventually make large shrubs, some upright, some wide spreading; with a rather open habit. A bit of formative pruning will make for a more compact bush, as will growing in full sun. When they have reached their required size they are not difficult to contain by pruning. They will grow in poor soils, provided it is acidic and as young plants in containers are nutrient sensitive such that they need much lower feed rates than even other camellias, let alone vigorous deciduous subjects.
In areas with unsuitable soil they may be grown in pots, They will need an ericaceous compost and their roots must be protected from freezing. Regular low level feeding will be needed.
I should also mention a small group of hybrids between C. sasanqua and C. reticulata that were raised by Howard Asper in America. These are ‘Show Girl’, ‘Flower Girl’ and ‘Dream Girl’. ‘Show Girl’ is an exceptional variety, with huge semi-double pink flowers for a couple of months in the middle of winter.
Camellia sasanqua ‘Navajo’ has just begun to flower in my south facing front garden. Beside it and not flowering yet is Camellia sasanqua ‘Paradise Little Liane’. My plant of this flowered freely last year and is well budded this year, in stark contrast to plants at Mt Edgcumbe and Trewithen which are growing in shade and do not flower at all. It is a very compact variety with small double flowers with a pleasant scent.
C. hiemalis ‘Bonanza’ is in the Mt Edgcumbe collection and flowers well even though it is located in full shade. The blooms are about 5cm across and an intense vivid pink bordering onto red. They have little or no scent in my experience. ‘Crimson King’ is either variable or more than one clone is sold under the name. A good form is a clear light red. ‘Gay Sue’ is of similar size and shape to ‘Bonanza’ but has a strong scent.
I have a plant of Camellia ‘Show Girl’ in a pot. It is about four feet tall and covered in buds. The large plant at Mt Edgcumbe is around 10 feet tall and upright growing. It turns in a superb performance regularly every year with semi-double blooms 15cm across.
I have written about the sasanquas in the National Collection at Mt. Edgcumbe with illustrations of many more varieties.
Sasanqua season – 1
Sasanqua season – 2
Sasanqua season – 3
Sasanqua season – 4
Sasanqua season 2018