The camellia is a bloom of such tropical, hothouse beauty, that she seems miscast in her wintry role. It’s as if she has strayed from the tea rooms at Claridge’s and found herself in a dank, dark pub.
The white camellia was Mademoiselle Chanel’s favourite flower, which, when it comes to style, perhaps says it all. Then again, like Chanel, she’s a tough old bird who puts up with all manner of adversity and comes out shining.
When I moved into my house last winter, I found a pot on the terrace, filled with dusty old soil and a bundle of twigs. The plant was hanging on for dear life to a couple of leaves, whose dark glossy, green made me think it must be a camellia. As indeed it was. A year later, after some TLC, otherwise known as watering and feeding, she is covered in creamy white buds, soon to unfold into bloom.
To labour the fashion metaphor further, I always think of evergreens as the tailoring and flowers as the accessories to any garden
I am not suggesting we should all subject the camellia to such torture; simply that it is more robust than its exotic beauty might suggest. It is a useful shrub, not only because it flowers at a time when we most need it, but because it is evergreen so brings some much-needed structure to a garden.
To labour the fashion metaphor yet further, I always think of evergreens as the tailoring and flowers as the accessories to any garden. The camellia, with its glossy, green leaves is a fine piece of tailoring.
It is, however, a plant that likes an acid soil. So if the surrounding gardens are filled with other acid-loving shrubs such as rhododendrons, azaleas and pieris, you know you’re in the right place. Plant them in a sheltered, part-shaded spot away from morning sun, as frosted blooms dislike the sudden shock of early morning heat.
Happily, camellias grow well in pots, so you can mimic their natural habitat by using acid or ericaceous compost (available from any garden centre). They also like to be well-watered during the summer months as lack of moisture when the flowers are forming may lead to bud drop later.
Their one disadvantage, which is why some people dislike them, is that the flowers can become a brown, soggy mass as they age. But a bit of assiduous picking over (so much easier in a pot on a terrace) will keep them looking good.
There are many colours to choose, from white to scarlet, but, like Mademoiselle Chanel, I am a purist and insist on white. There is a particular shade of salmon pink I loathe because it seems to me more bordello than Claridge’s. There was one growing in the garden when I first arrived at the house which, sadly, met an untimely death. But as I refuse to have an ugly old armchair in my sitting room, why have one in my garden?