Camellia days at Vaucluse House

 

Now that midwinter is here, the camellias at Vaucluse House are putting on a glorious show – a riot of cream, scarlet and pink-coloured blossoms. Among the most spectacular is the rare ‘waratah’ camellia (Camellia japonica ‘Anemoniflora’), named for its resemblance to the NSW floral emblem.

Take a walk in any old Sydney suburb, or in an old cemetery like Rookwood, and you’re likely to see a few survivors from the golden age of the camellia. During the 19th century, the exotic ornamental – a native of China and Japan – was the most fashionable, prized and expensive flower in Europe. In 1855, a single plant changed hands for £200 (about £20,000 today).

Camellias were hugely popular in colonial Australia too. Alexander Macleay was one of the first to bring the camellia to Australia, planting his Elizabeth Bay garden in the 1820s with fine varieties of Camellia japonica. As William Charles Wentworth was laid to rest in the mausoleum at Vaucluse House in June 1873, his coffin was covered with a garland made of white camellias from the estate. And William Macarthur, who grew up roaming his parents’ paddocks at Elizabeth Farm, went on to become one of colonial Australia’s most notable camellia breeders. You can see his best-known cultivar, ‘Aspasia Macarthur’, in the garden at Vaucluse House and at Elizabeth Farm. Its crimson-splotched cream flowers are a lovely sight.

Old-day camellias, most of which date back to the early Victorian era, when fuchsias and pelargoniums were popular, are now in full flower in the gardens around Vaucluse House … Since the storms have passed many buds have opened out, and are now ready to welcome all who care to call and see them. In no other public garden are there so many beautiful camellias.

SYDNEY MORNING HERALd, 11 July 1931

Some of the huge old camellias at Vaucluse House date to the 1860s or even earlier. At this time, the formal lawn at the front of the house was edged with a horseshoe-shaped border and planted with camellias alternating pink, red and white; many survive today. The grand old waratah camellia by the estate gates on Wentworth Road is also a survivor from this time.

According to SLM gardener Anita Rayner, the camellias at Vaucluse House are ‘going off’ this year, despite autumn’s wild weather. That means not much has changed since 1931, when the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the camellias in the pleasure garden had weathered the recent gales unscathed.

Make sure you catch the camellias at Vaucluse House while they’re at their peak. There’s just a few more weeks to see the waratah camellia in flower, but the camellias will continue to flower right through winter and into spring.

The historic harbourside grounds at Vaucluse House are open every day, and entry is free.

About the Author

Photograph of Helen Curran, assistant curator at Sydney Living Museums
Helen Curran
Former Assistant Curator
Helen was Sydney Living Museums’ dedicated gardens...
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