THE CAMELLIA FLOWER
Bold plant hunters stepped into the valleys and mountains of the Far East in the early 20th century in search of rare flora then largely unknown in the West. Much of what they found flourishes in Victoria’s North East.
Bold plant hunters travelled the Far East seeking rare flora, unaware much of what they found flourishes in Victoria’s North East.
HELEN Gordon had a keen eye for a fine garden. The English teacher at what was then Beechworth High School came in the late 1970s with her family to buy a few hectares of land near Three Mile Creek.
There stood a near-derelict weatherboard miner’s cottage and about it were the remnants of an old, untended garden.
Beyond – across a shallow fold to a lane once alive with the bustle of miners and the plod of cattle, wagons and horses heading to the creek and Beechworth’s last gold rush – one of the district’s old families had quietly farmed small herds of Jersey milkers for generations.
Burnley Horticultural College lecturer and Victorian Gardens Scheme guidebook author John Patrick wrote in 1988 that it had appeared to Helen Gordon a remote and lonely landscape – although just four kilometres from Beechworth. But by her hand it became a place transformed. Within a few years she had salvaged a great old cherry laurel Prunus laurocerasus – a tree that so often grows up in the tread of a gold find.
She restored to health a gnarled mulberry which she found split and damaged, shaped a tree-sized rare photinia and watched in wonder as an old cider pear blossomed in spring.
She also planted camellia taken as seedlings from the garden of a family house in Melbourne’s Camberwell.
These Camellia japonica – and, afterwards, C. sasanqua, reticulata, williamsii, rusticana and tsaii grown about the garden in all their variety – found their feet.
By design or coincidence, Helen Gordon’s refurbishment also extended plantings derived from the Far East, anchored by the photinia.
The identification of this variety of the species, called P. beauverdiana var. notabilis, was collected by English-born plant hunter Ernest Wilson in western China in 1905 and determined a few years later by German-born botanist Camillo Karl Schneider.
Between them, Wilson, Schneider and fellow German Alfred Rehder collected in the early twentieth century a startling range of plants endemic in China’s western provinces of Hubei and Sichuan.
Among these were camellia, magnolia, michelia and maple, many new to the wider world, and Helen Gordon made use of them in the deft restoration of her garden.
Almost four decades later a pair of C. sasanqua ‘Mine-no-yuki’ has reached six metres to brush the bull- nosed verandah of the house with its flushed white flowers – proof of a match between the Indigo Hills’ cool climate and the old mudstone soils in which camellia prospers.
Another hedge of sasanqua extends for six metres and is clipped to two metres, its deep, polished leaves a particular foil for the ragged, white, irregular-form flowers.
There is a glorious shell-pink semi-double-flowering japonica now encouraged as a tree, numerous single-flowered sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’ with its white reflexing petals and a large-flowered single lilac-pink sasanqua ‘Maiden’s Blush’ with prominent stamens rising from its lightly crushed petals.
A white form of tsaii puts out delicate, weeping branches on which small, fragrant blooms emerge from bud-tips bruised red.
Farther on – behind and above a pair of ladder-branched Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ on which white hydrangea-headed flowers are budding in late winter – a pink-bloomed species camellia has shed its cupped petals as a carpet at its feet. To the Japanese, these are tsubaki. In a country in which spiritual and cultural traditions are enmeshed with the natural world like no other – and home to many of the 200 known camellia species – tsubaki encapsulate the contradiction of beauty and transience, for the flower of C. japonica at its peak drops whole to the ground. These are bountiful plants and with their evergreen leaves give depth and scale to any garden.
They can also be shaped to create structure, live for decades and yield blooms in the shortening autumn and darker winter days of the year.
...To the Japanese, these are tsubaki... which encapsulate the contradiction of beauty and transience.
Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ ( left) C. tsaii (above)