Azurea or Pilida, or something else?

There are still close to a hundred plants in the Mt Edgcumbe collection which do not match their labels and which I have been unable to positively identify. I will give a full description of one of them, which for reasons I will explain, I think may be ‘Azurea’ or ‘Pilida’. I am hoping that anyone familiar with either or both varieties will be able to confirm my identification or definitively rule it out while pointing me elsewhere.

There are two plants of this variety, (let me call it A/P for now), the original plant and another propagated from it. The original plant was probably planted around 1980 and is now at least 5m high and wide. The flowers are full peony form, to around 10cm across and 6cm deep when fully open. They are red, sometimes a little purple tinged. An occasional stamen may be evident, usually there are none.

The growth habit is fairly distinctive in that in most years the terminal buds break to produce growth but not usually any of the lateral buds. Thus there are frequently lengths of a metre or so, consisting of successive annual 20cm growth increments, with no laterals. Flowering is sparse and over a longish period, often on the tips of the shoots.

Photo 27/1/2022

The leaves are broadly oval and tend to get a brownish edge in their second or third year. They remain attached for 5-6 years. The photos of leaves are taken against a 5mm grid.

91cm long shoot comprising five season’s growth with no laterals produced.

As you can see, the flowers are quite good if not exceptional but the sparse display and rather gaunt habit make it barely worth growing, at least in our conditions. However, it may be historically significant and is likely to be a rare variety in the UK.

David Trehane was the main driving force behind getting the collection started and was at the time trialling several hundred camellia varieties in his garden at Trehane House, Tresilian, near Truro, Cornwall. Many of these were Australian varieties, sent by the nurseryman Walter Hazlewood. In 1981 Trehane said of these that “nearly all have a permanent place either in our catalogue or what may be the national collection at Mount Edgcumbe.” For all the implication that they were to go either in the catalogue or the collection it appears that there is little or nothing at Mount Edgcumbe that was not in the Trehane Nursery catalogue in the mid 1960’s and for some years after that. Nor is there a great deal in the catalogue that is not, or hasn’t been, in the Mt Edgcumbe collection. I had long assumed that most were relatively new varieties but it turns out that sixteen or more are pre 1900 varieties.

‘Azurea’ is a variety that used to be in the collection but the only plant of it was destroyed by a falling tree before I ever saw it. It had been propagated but the young plants seem to have gone. It is in the Trehane catalogue described as follows: “(Australia 1862) Anemone or paeony form, medium size, dark red with a purple sheen. Compact upright growth.” In the Camellia Register the description is a quote from the raisers catalogue: “Shepherd & Co. Nursery Catalogue, 1862: Raised from seed by ourselves, a free grower and an abundant bloomer. The flower is of the largest size, peony shaped, the colour is a dark or metallic purple, and is, perhaps, the nearest approach to blue that has yet occured in the tribe Flowers early to late. It has sometimes been confused with Zambo which, however, is formal double.”

‘Pilida’ does not appear in the collection records but is in the Trehane catalogue. It is described: “(Australia) A dark red anemone to paeony form with purple shading. Upright moderate grower. This may be the same as Azurea introduced in Australia in 1862 and much planted there and in New Zealand.” In an RHS Yearbook article by Tom Durrant in 1963 he describes it as “a deep red semi-double with anemone to paeony form centre”

Both varieties are in the online Camellia Register on the ICS website. ‘Azurea’ has three images which could all be of different varieties. ‘Pilida’ has plenty of images but again they are too variable to draw a frim conclusion.

Every one of the early Australian plantings in the collection is in the Trehane catalogue from the time. I would give a pound to a pinch of snuff that whatever this thing is, it’s in that catalogue and I have been through it with a fine toothed comb ruling out of contention all but ‘Azurea’ and ‘Pilida’, and just possibly ‘Speciosissima. It seems all but certain it is one of them, but which one? And are ‘Azurea’ and ‘Pilida’ in fact distinct cultivars or could they, as David Trehane suggests, be one and the same, or could he have been growing the same thing under two different names?

Of the names in the collection records and/or in the Trehane catalogue, these two seemed the most likely contenders for variety A/P. Everything else was either known to me or their descriptions made it clear they were wrong. I was minded to rule out ‘Azurea’ for three reasons. Firstly, a plant had been in the collection under that name, so presumably had to be different from A/P or it would have been identified as being the same. Secondly, there is a plant at Greenway garden in Devon labelled ‘Azurea’ and it is completely different to A/P. Thirdly, A/P only occasionally has a noticeable purple look about it.

I now realise that the Greenway plant, with its small formal double flowers, is almost certainly something else. As to the plant of ‘Azurea’ that was in the collection, I have no way of knowing what it was like. If it had been the same as A/P but under a different name, it wouldn’t be the first time. ‘Azurea’, from the descriptions and pictures I’ve seen, seems the better bet.

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