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.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words & pho­tos Jamie Kronborg

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)

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