The early bursts of spring weather have been enchanting but they have also had their cost. It is heaven to bask in the lunch hour among early narcissi, carpets of accelerated anemones and the clumps of miniature iris reticulata that show welcome stamina in my garden.
The spring-flowering shrubs are more at risk. The warm, clear days are followed by nights of low temperatures and sharp frost. Fortunately, most of my local magnolias have held back their flowers and not yet exposed their buds to the damaging early morning cold. Early forms of Prunus are mostly able to resist the chill and have been spectacular already in favoured suburbs and streets where early flowering forms were planted 50 years ago, before the fashion for supposedly “native” trees. The bigger problems are camellias.
Here, I have to admit to a recent burst of uncharitable glee. In a highly favoured London square, I noted how many of the front gardens already had big bushes of camellia in flower in mid-February. I cannot grow such specimens because I do not have the acid, lime-free soil they require. Even if I could, I would never have bushes in flower in the country at such an early date as Londoners. But Nature had snapped back and browned the flowers in a short, sharp bout of frost. Serves them right, was, I fear, the thought that came to mind and I suspect dark mutterings about house prices and non-doms came into the equation. This was unworthy because these issues were not the camellias’ fault and the camellias were the ones who had suffered. It should never be a matter of gloating when other gardeners have a setback.
Is there a way of avoiding such early spring damage? One trick is to fit widely meshed garden netting on to a wooden frame and place it on cold nights over the camellias whose flowers are most at risk. The netting acts like those old-fashioned string vests whose workings are always such a mystery. The netting gives a layer of insulation above the plants and takes the edge off the first degree or two of frost. The trick is used on a grander scale by lemon- and orange-growers in central and southern Italy, who put solid frames of wooden slats over their trees when the flowers are coming forwards in an early spring. On a camellia, the netting to use is the sort you might use on a fruit cage. It will not keep off sharp drops in temperature but it works at the margin.
When I described this trick recently at a question-and-answer session, a neatly laundered financier in the front row asked if the same trick would work with women. Apparently he wanted to keep his central heating turned off until mid-morning. I agreed with the nearby lady who reminded him that a hug would be a better idea.
If they are unbrowned, camellias are certainly the flowers of the moment. Breeders are hard at work all over the world to extend the family’s season and combine the hardiness of some forms with the early habits of others. The change in the modern British November means that some of the Sasanqua forms are almost now worth a bet against sheltered walls outdoors. They are splendid, of course, in big pots in slightly heated conservatories. Otherwise, we have to wait 10 weeks or so for the best spring forms to begin. I have been enjoying some of these at recent flower shows, where they have had the protection of plastic tunnels.
One of the principal exhibitors and suppliers is Burncoose Nurseries down in Cornwall, which has a very special link with the camellia’s garden history. Our best hardy and free-flowering forms are mostly Williamsii hybrids, taking their name from the great Cornish gardening family with whom the Burncoose nursery has been closely connected. One of its sources of cuttings and stock is the superb garden at Caerhays nearby, guardian of some of the famous parent-plants that first came to Britain from east Asia. Burncoose is a first resort for many of the best camellias and rare magnolias. Don’t expect really big plants of every variety in the list. The nursery is quite frank that you will often be sent plants about a foot high, which grow on perfectly well and are ideal for big pots in an acid compost. This controlled environment is my one way of growing camellias in an alkaline area. Try to water them only with rainwater. If you are impatient, Burncoose offers bigger, field-grown plants for £25-£50 each. They are offered in a special autumn list. These big plants sell out very quickly.
I recommend patience and the main catalogue. Burncoose has them all, from November-flowering Sasanquas such as the excellent Paradise Blush, to the family’s own Williamsii hybrids including the fine pink St Ewe, which lasts so long in flower. In pots I strongly recommend the yellow Jury’s Yellow whose flowers rank as anemone-shaped. They are good doubles in a good shade of pale yellow.
My top three are the tall, double pink Debbie; the big, thickly petalled White Nun; and the large, semi-double Bob Hope, which won a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit. Any forms with Williamsii blood are easy to manage and most of them flower very well. Burncoose is offering a special discount: five plants of customers’ choice at the bigger 1ft-1½ft size for £45, delivery included. If you are planning a new front garden or terrace these mini-collections are an excellent starting point.