Camellias light up the winter garden

close up of an Aspasia Macarthur camellia bloom at Vaucluse House

A pink sport is shown on the Camellia ‘Aspasia Macarthur’ at Vaucluse House. Photograph © Katrina James, Sydney Living Museums

Camellias put on a spectacular display of flowers through autumn and winter and are deservedly popular garden plants.

Camellias were very early plant introductions to Australia and have been popular in home gardens ever since. Flowering from early autumn through winter and into early spring, they are adaptable and easily grown shrubs. The fragile delicacy of their flowers belies the fact that Camellias are tough and durable plants able to survive harsh conditions and neglect, so they can often be found growing in old gardens, parks and cemeteries without any attention. Give them some organic fertiliser to promote strong growth, some water, mulch and light shade and they will   reward you with their magnificent display of winter flowers.

Although there are over 200 species of wild Camellias originating from East Asia, three species and their cultivated varieties are the most commonly grown in Australian gardens – Camellia sasanqua, Camellia japonica and Camellia reticulata. Sasanqua Camellias are big evergreen shrubs that flower over a long period from March to June. Individual blooms only last a day or two before the petals shatter and fall but the bushes are so floriferous they can be smothered in flowers for many weeks. They are particularly associated with early-20th century gardens as well as being popular in the post-War period. The garden at Vaucluse House features a few large old Sasanquas with single pink or red flowers. Thanks to modern plant breeding there are now hundreds of different varieties available to grow.

'Aspasia Macarthur' Camellia bloom at Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta
Camellia 'Aspasia Macarthur' at Elizabeth Farm Photo Ian Innes © Sydney Living Museums

‘Aspasia Macarthur’ (picture above) is an old Camellia japonica variety raised by William Macarthur at Camden Park where they had a large plant nursery. Thought to be a chance seedling of an even older English variety ‘Elegans’, Aspasia Macarthur has large cream flowers striped and blotched with pink. Sometimes different coloured forms appear spontaneously on a branch (known as ‘sports’) and over the years a number of these have been propagated and established as new varieties. In fact Aspasia Macarthur has given rise to at least fourteen other new varieties through chance mutations. You can see Aspasia Macarthur in flower right now at Elizabeth Farm and Vaucluse House.

The second half of the 19th century was the peak of the Camellia craze worldwide with hundreds of new varieties bred in England, France, Belgium, Italy, the United States and Australia. The garden at Vaucluse House features a number of these mid-19th century Camellia varieties such as ‘Thompsonii’, ‘Pomponia’ and ‘Speciossissima’ which are at their peak in July and will feature in a future post.

pink single bloom of the Camellia sasanqua from Vaucluse House
Single flowered Camellia sasanqua variety at Vaucluse House Photo Ian Innes © Sydney Living Museums
Water droplets sit on a modern camellia variety 'Easter Morn'
Camellia ‘Easter Morn’, a modern variety, in the author’s garden Photo Ian Innes © Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Ian Innes

Director Heritage & Collections

Having worked on the conservation and sustainable management of historic gardens and parks in the UK, Europe and Australia – including long stints at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands – Ian has now taken on the challenge of helping chart the future direction of Sydney Living Museums at a pivotal moment in its history.