Caring for Camellias

PUBLISHED: 10:22 31 January 2008 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Camellia reticulata 'Pagoda'

Camellia reticulata 'Pagoda'

February and March are a perfect time to see camellias in bloom. Cornwall Life finds a couple who tend a garden containing a collection of over 200 different camellia plants at Porthpean House Gardens, near St Austell

Terry Underhill talks to Charlotte and Christopher Petherick who look after a collection of over 200 different camellia plants at Porthpean House Gardens, near St Austell.

Winning the prestigious Leonardslee Bowl five times for one specimen of 12 different camellias at the RHS April Camellia Show is an unequalled record for Charlotte Petherick, owner of Porthpean House Gardens, near St Austell. This record was achieved between 1989-92, along with a further two years 1994-95, and is all the more remarkable when you learn that Charlotte's exhibits were up against those of the top UK camellia growers (and some very likely from abroad), most of whom protect their blooms under glass, while Charlotte's plants are all grown outdoors without artificial protection.

"This success has to be one of my gardening highlights, especially as I have had no formal horticultural training - although my mother was an authority on anything I asked," says Charlotte. "She was very keen on lilies and it was she who emphasised the importance of gardening cleanliness. I learnt not to leave garden debris such as trimmings and prunings about, something which is so important with camellias because of Camellia Petal Blight disease."

Camellia petal blight is a problem that has spread into all major camellia-growing countries including the UK, where it was first detected in 1999, and is now found throughout southern England. Symptoms are similar to frost damage, with the flowers turning brown and usually dropping off prematurely. A distinguishing feature is a white or grey ring of fungal mycelium around the base of the infected petals. If infected flowers are left on the ground, the disease can overwinter in the soil beneath the bushes and release spores into the air as flowering time approaches the following season. These spores are capable of drifting on the wind for up to 40km and can also be spread by contaminated soil and even on muddy boots and car tyres. Thankfully, it does not spread from bloom to bloom, but sadly an effective fungicidal control is not known. Charlotte not only collects and destroys all fallen flowers, but any faded flower which does not drop off naturally on her bushes is poked off with a long bamboo cane.

Charlotte and her husband, Christopher, look after a collection of over 200 different cultivars at Porthpean. The collection was started by Christopher's late Uncle Maurice in the 1950s. Christopher and Charlotte had lived next door since 1979 and helped in the garden, eventually moving into Porthpean House and taking over full responsibility for the garden, the camellia collection and a productive area with its glasshouse and frames.

Camellias are normally associated with light woodland areas and have a thin canopy overhead to filter the strongest of sunlight and reduce problems from radiation frosts. The gardens at Lower Porthpean are separated from the sea at St Austell Bay by a mixed, high hedge windbreak, which does reduce the impact and ferocity of a south-easterly gale. Nevertheless, the garden is regularly hit by salt spray, but surprisingly it does not harm the camellias.

"We have a moderate rainfall, an exceptionally high light level - excellent for large bloom production and ripening growth - and an acid soil, 6 pH," says Charlotte. "Occasionally a camellia shows signs of yellowing foliage, which is known as 'lime-induced chlorosis', and occurs when its roots find a pocket of alkaline soil, otherwise they all grow exceptionally well. The only feed they have is when I sometimes put a reasonable quantity of well-rotted dung in the hole prior to planting."

Frost is rare owing to the proximity of the sea, but a severe cold spell a few years ago killed a much-loved acacia. Occasionally a plant needs to be trimmed back, an operation carried out soon after flowering, although Charlotte believes that too many gardeners forget how large their plants can become and tend to plant too close. "A common 'sin' is that keen plant-lovers try to fit in 'just another one'," says Charlotte.

"Over the years, new camellias have been introduced, some of which are very new to our gardens and some old favourites that are admired for their qualities," she says. The current 200 or more cultivars are a mixture of Maurice's original plantings and those gleaned as plants or cuttings by Charlotte from visits to gardens, shows and conferences.

Charlotte has a particular liking for a nursery at Brest in Brittany, and also obtained cuttings following her attendance at an International Camellia Society conference in Japan. This year the Society is holding its conference at Falmouth in early April, visiting many Cornish gardens, and the Cornwall Garden Society's Spring Show at Bocconoc (5-6 April) will place special emphasis on the county's camellia collections and industry.

Camellias dominate Porthpean House Gardens, with paths winding among the plants so that each plant can be admired. Camellias can be found in bloom from early autumn, with various C. sasanqua cultivars, through to the late C. japonica cultivars in May. "We were able to find a camellia flower for Maurice's funeral wreath in August," says Charlotte.

The garden contains many other interesting plants, and the view from the house, with its various climbing and rambling roses, offers breathtaking views out to sea. Areas are carpeted with primroses and drifts of bluebells in the spring. Charlotte has tried introducing erythroniums, especially the dog's tooth violet, Erythronium dens-canis. "But they seem to be top of the local mice population's diet, so I am going to try another love of mine, fritillaries," she says.

The garden is run on organic lines whenever possible, and the kitchen garden has regular mulches of seaweed, brought in by a local farmer. "I put it direct onto the ground, including in the glasshouse where we grow our tomatoes, and have no ill-effects from salt."

When asked what is her favourite job, Charlotte replies: "Growing vegetables, especially asparagus and the various beans." And her favourite plant? A camellia, of course - the San Dimas with its large, semi-double, strong dark-red flowers, perfectly shaped with very even petals, and a large central boss of golden-yellow stamens. "I have one and it is wonderful, with nice dark-green glossy foliage to complement the blooms."

Porthpean House Gardens is open to raise funds for the Cornwall Garden Society on 24 February and for the RNLI on 10 May. For further details and to arrange private visits (01726 72888.

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