Pruning.

“These popular evergreen shrubs require very little pruning.”

Advice on pruning Camellias generally starts from the above standpoint, taken from George Brown’s “The Pruning of Trees, Shrubs and Conifers.” The implication is that very little pruning will ever be required and that you’ll probably get away with none at all.
Camellias however, are long lived plants, their lifespan on the scale of trees. Their growth rate is much slower than most trees though, so gardeners don’t give the same amount of thought to how big they will eventually get and what the consequences of that will be. It is a similar scenario to that of “dwarf” and slow growing conifers; massively popular in the 1960’s and 70’s, now nearly all gone because they outgrew their location and the only course of action was removal.

Perhaps the ideal is to let the plant get to the size required, or the maximum that its situation allows, then maintain it at that size. If you have a bush that is at that point it is possible to achieve that aim in one of two ways. You can clip it into a rounded (or square or whatever shape you want) dome and go on doing so on an annual basis. There is no denying that this works; there are several plants in gardens nearby that have been maintained in this way for years. They even flower pretty well.

Alternatively, and much more satisfactorily as far as I’m concerned, you can stand back and look for the branches that go beyond the outline you require and cut them back to a side shoot that is within the outline you require. That is likely to be best carried out after flowering in the spring and can be followed up in the autumn by removing any long extension growths that have been made in the second half of the summer and which have no flower buds for the following season on them.

Bob-Hope

This bush of ‘Bob Hope’ is as large as I want it to get and as soon as it has finished flowering I will cut back all its longer shoots so that its outline is about a foot further in all over.

In practice, most people don’t do this and the plant eventually outgrows its space. Paradoxically, it is the people with small gardens who are most likely to prune their plants. In a bigger garden plants need to be larger to be in scale with their surroundings but once the plant is too tall to be pruned from the ground it is more difficult and liable to be put off until unavoidable. Groups of Camellias grow into each other and become dark and bare stemmed beneath an evergreen “roof”. If they flower it is only the birds overhead that witness it.

Camellias are not averse to pruning in the way that most conifers are and when they have outgrown their situation there is a second option available which avoids removal. This is to prune them hard and to retrain them to a small sized bush that can then hopefully be maintained as described in the previous paragraph.

Camellias are hard to kill. I have seen large bushes, 8-10 feet tall, crushed under large falling trees such that all that is left is a jagged stump a few inches tall sticking out of the ground; then a year later they have produced shoots and are starting to come back. I have even dug plants out completely with a decent sized rootball only to come back a couple of years later to a ring of shoots growing up from the roots left beyond the rootball. So reducing a tree by half or two thirds is very unlikely to kill it.

In the vast majority of cases, if hard pruning is carried out in late winter, by the end of the following summer there will be a forest of new growth from just below the cut ends. Even if you can’t bear to cut a large bush in flower or just about to flower and delay pruning until the flowers are finished, you are likely to get almost the same response. It can be anywhere between six inches and 30 inches in my experience, with a whole raft of factors affecting the response. In general a strong healthy plant in good growing conditions will respond much better than a less favoured plant.

Bush-1

Two large bushes pruned hard in May 2015. By mid June they were beginning to shoot.

The upshot of this is that a strong plant will be back to the same size as it was before cutting but with much denser growth, in as little as five years. Since it may take as long to start flowering freely again that is clearly unsatisfactory. Plants in shade are worse in this regard, the shade causes more lanky growth and lack of sun reduces the number of shoots whose growth is cut short by a flower bud forming.

Pruning needs to be carried out with a picture in mind of what size you want the plant to grow back to. You need to anticipate the amount of regrowth you expect and cut back enough such that with that regrowth, the plant is still within the size desired. So if you want an eight foot bush and expect three feet of new growth after pruning, you need to cut to five feet.

Bob Flowerdew, talking about thinning plums on Gardeners Question Time said to thin them until you cry, then go back and thin them some more. It is much the same with camellias. If you have cut off 10 branches, why would you want 50 or 100 to regrow? They will be thin, crowding each other and drawing each other up in competition for light. They need to be thinned out to probably a maximum of three to each cut stem. They should also probably be shortened back, particularly if they are very long and thin. Thinning can be done any time, the sooner the better. Shortening back is perhaps best done in early September, late enough for regrowth not to occur that season and for flower buds to be visible, yet early enough for the reduction in foliage to reduce the plant’s vigour a little.

Bush-2

Ten or more shoots have grown from this one cut stem. All but two or three well spaced and positioned shoots need to be removed completely.

This pruning needs to start in the same year as the pruning took place, at least for the thinning. It then becomes a matter of keeping in mind the size of bush that you are trying for and cutting out the growth that goes beyond this. This removal should always be done in such a way that the cuts are hidden and a natural looking outline is retained. It may be that hard pruning will eventually need to be repeated but it is not very satisfactory as the only method of pruning used. If that becomes the case many of the shyer flowerers will not have started to flower freely after one cut before they need the next.

bush-3

Most regrowth is from near the extremity of a cut shoot. This bush couldn’t be cut too low because of browsing deer so already the new growth is hard to reach from the ground. Some thinning has been done, more is needed, and the long extension growth at the top should be shortened in early autumn.

Two more things need to be borne in mind. The first is that you can’t maintain a bush at a particular size if you can’t reach where you need to cut. If the bush is taller than you are, reaching the middle of the top will be difficult. A ladder is not a good platform from which to lean three or four feet across the top of a camellia. A ladder on soft, sloping ground is even worse. Suitable long pruning tools may work but are expensive for only one or two bushes.

Secondly, a “typical” camellia produces an early flush of growth between March and June and a second flush between July and August. The second flush seems almost optional. In 2018’s very hot summer, almost none of the camellias at Mt Edgcumbe made a second flush at all. It is at the tips of the first flush that most flower buds form and if a second flush is produced it is at the expense of flowers. The second flush may be from many shoots on a bush or very few. It is usually the case that no flower buds are carried on the second flush growth which can be removed in whole or part from September onwards without detriment to the plant.

This plant of Debbie was cut back by around two thirds four years ago. The regrowth was thinned and shortened and in September 2018 I cut back all the extension growth made after mid summer. Plenty of flower buds had formed on the shorter, early season growths and these were all left on the bush. Now it is flowering with the flowers well displayed and not hidden amongst foliage and the bush is at least a foot shorter than it would have been if left unpruned.

Bush-4

Pruned in 2015, this bush made several inches of growth in 2015, a lot more in 2016 and less in the hot dry summer of 2018. It has been drawn up by overhead shade too. It should have been shortened in the autumn, cutting the long stems back to side shoots.

Bush-5

This bush has responded well to pruning but has not made long extension growths in mid-late summer. Thinning is the priority here or the stems are liable to flop out under the weight of flowers, rain or snow. Birds love to nest in these dense bushes so timing is critical.

On labelling and re-labelling.

labels

I spent most of my volunteer day this week putting on labels. I have for some months been working my way systematically through the Mount Edgcumbe collection putting numbers onto the reverse of the labels to identify individual plants. I have been noting broken and missing labels as I’ve progressed and have attached temporary labels where appropriate.

I went out with 34 labels to attach, most of them for plants which had no label or had broken labels. In addition to these were seven where I removed and replaced the existing label because it was showing the wrong name. I have created a new page below the Mt Edgcumbe tab called labelling notes and will note all labelling alterations from now on.

I am now at the point where I am sufficiently certain that the existing labels on some plants are incorrect, AND am certain to a high level of confidence what the variety correctly is, to be replacing them. The first part of that requirement is much easier than the second and there are many plants in the collection where it is only the first part that has been satisfied. Most of those plants still have the incorrect label on them but where labels have been lost on varieties that seem to be incorrectly identified in the records, I have not replaced them. Here are the changes I made.
1) 1G-054 Replaced label showing Camellia japonica ‘Katie’ with one showing Camellia japonica ‘White Nun’. Two plants had been purchased from Coghurst Nursery and planted in 2003. The one at 1L-015 fits the description for the variety, ie large and pink; this one is white and seems identical to ‘White Nun’ at 1H-029 & 1H-030.

Katie

1G-054 and 1L-015, were both labelled ‘Katie’. 1G-054 has been relabelled ‘White Nun’

2) 1G-070 Replaced label showing Camellia japonica ‘Mathotiana Alba’ with one showing ‘Camellia japonica ‘Mathotiana Rosea’. The plant flowers uniformly pink and is a good match with ‘Mathotiana Rosea’ at 2C-036.

3) 2C-008 Replaced label showing Camellia williamsii ‘Candy Stripe’ with one showing Camellia x williamsii ‘Marjorie Waldegrave’. Plant is an exact match for the three plants of this variety in sections 2D and 9.

Candy-Stripe

2C-008 was labelled ‘Candy Stripe’, which should look like 8-004 ‘Candy Stripe’ (Waterhouse) on the right. It’s been relabelled ‘Marjorie Waldegrave’. It’s not obvious why anyone would think the plain pink one would be called ‘Candy Stripe’.

4) 1P-026 Replaced label showing Camellia japonica ‘Mathotiana’ with one showing Camellia japonica ‘Grand Sultan’. ‘Grand Sultan’ was widely grown under the name ‘Mathotiana’ but is quite different. This plant is a good match for ‘Grand Sultan’ 5D-008 and except for the flower colour, with its sport ‘Augusto Pinto’ 5D-002.

5) 2A-041 Replaced label showing Camellia japonica ‘Migali’ with one showing ‘Camellia japonica ‘Lady Vansittart’. Both this plant and the one at 5A-047 are clearly ‘Lady Vansittart’. ‘Migali’ is described in the Register as a small, shell pink single which these are not.

6) 1A-036 Replaced label showing Camellia japonica ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ with one showing Camellia japonica ‘Nuccio’s Jewel’.

7) 1E-026 Replaced label showing Camellia japonica ‘Martha Brice’ with one showing Camellia japonica ‘Marie Bracey’. There is another plant labelled ‘Martha Bryce’ at 4C-003 which is different from this one and appears correct. There was also a reference to the variety ‘Marie Bracey’ being in this section on an old plan and it does match descriptions of that variety.

Martha-Brice

1E-026 & 4C-003 have been labelled Martha Brice and Martha Bryce respectively. 1E-026 has now been relabelled ‘Marie Bracey’. 4C-003 should be relabelled ‘Martha Brice’, which is the correct spelling, but for now there are bigger problems to deal with.

Little things

As a blogger I feel I should be producing output on a fairly regular basis, but also that I should keep quiet until I have something to say. Real life doesn’t always work like that and my dealings with camellias consist of a constant trickle of trivia around which I would struggle to construct any sort of coherent narrative.

Take last Tuesday for example. I headed up to Mt Edgcumbe as usual and spent a good deal of the day going around taking photos. I do this even though I have many pictures of most of the plants in the collection because I want to build up a picture of how the flowers vary from one season to another. I also have a better camera than I had when I started, so I hope to get better pictures than I already have.

There are also still quite a number of plants in the collection that I have yet to see flower. Some were pruned hard just before I turned up to photograph them. The time it takes for a plant to get back to flowering varies from no time at all to five years or more. It depends on the variety, the severity of pruning, the location of the plant, follow up thinning of regrowth, the weather and probably several other things as well.

On Tuesday I took photos of two plants I had not seen flower before. In Section 4D is a plant labelled ‘Barbara Mary’, pruned some years ago and with a few buds this season. I took a picture of a small and squiffy flower then noticed a much better one at the top of the bush. Sometimes the only way to get a picture is to cut the shoot off, in this case I was able to pull it down and hold it in a reasonably natural position to take the picture.

Camellia japonica 'Barbara Mary'

Camellia japonica ‘Barbara Mary’ (4E-024)

When I got home I looked up the Register entry for this variety which describes it as “Colour blush pink. A large, peony form flower with a delicate scent. Early to mid-season blooming.” The blush pink bit seems correct and perhaps it will develop into a peony form as it opens more. I seldom think to check for scent, so few have any.

In Macaboy’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias he echoes the blush-pink peony form description but has a picture of a semi-double, almost anemone-form flower that I would describe as light red.

There are pictures on Camellias.pics and the colour is a good match but not the form, at least so far. Camellias Australia have a picture on Flikr which is similar; right colour, wrong form.

It is common, the norm even, for camellia blooms in the relatively cool climate of the UK to differ from blooms of the same variety in a hotter climate. In general there is a greater tendency for stamens to develop into petaloids or petals in a cool climate. Blooms become more double, with less stamens at the centre; they may take several days to open fully to the point where stamens are visible, fooling you into thinking they are not going to have any.

So I will revisit the same bloom next Tuesday and see whether it has become peony form. If it has I will be reasonably satisfied that it is what the label says it is.

The other “new” flowerer was in European Section 5A. This is one of the oldest sections and a lot of the plants were pruned several years ago. Most have now flowered again but they are back to the size they were before and are denser than ever. They will need to be pruned again soon. There is a plant with no label that on the plan is marked as ‘Tricolor’. It is now in flower and appears to be the same as ‘Tricolor Siebold’ at 5B-026. It has a small to medium, white formal double bloom on a very upright bush.

‘Tricolor Siebold’ is a synonym for ‘Tricolor’ so I know this is wrong, even allowing for the variability of the flowers of ‘Tricolor’, several forms of which have been named. The foliage is quite different and that clinches it for me. What I now have to attempt is to put the right name to it. It is similar in flower and growth habit to a plant in Section 2A labelled ‘Alba Plena’ so I shall start by comparing it very closely with that.

There are very many formal double white camellias. I can go through my books but there is no way I can identify my unknown variety from a single picture with no foliage, little indication of size, nothing about growth habit, nothing about whether it was ever grown in this country.Camellia japonica 'Tricolor'

Of course the reverse is also true. You may be looking at my picture, thinking it looks very like an unidentified plant that you have and wishing that I’d put up 10 pictures of blooms, their size, some foliage, its size, and so on. To which I would say that the only way you could be sure enough that yours was the same as mine would be to cut a piece of yours and take it to the plant that I had illustrated and compare every possible detail.

It’s the only way I know to get from “I think it might be” to “I’m very nearly certain it is”. I’m not sure it is possible to get to “I’m absolutely certain it is” unless you can prove that it was propagated from the original plant of a variety.