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28/07/2021

Gardening: Camellias and magnolias herald spring

With Jo McGarry of Caragh Nurseries

Gardening: Camellias and magnolias herald spring

Camellias in a garden

This year, more than ever before, the anticipation of spring flowers seems so much more significant. As we watch all the early flowering plants and trees shift towards growth, with buds swelling and the promise of bright blooms inside, it seems there is light at the end of the tunnel at last. We all know it's been a tough year, so lets welcome the beauty of spring in all its glory with open arms! To kick things off this week, we thought we’d take a look at two of our spring flowering favourites; a celebration of camellias and the magic of magnolias.

Bursting into bloom just when the garden is in most need of some colour, camellias are quite simply queen of the winter flowers. There are numerous species of these evergreen shrubs, but the most commonly grown are camellia sasanqua, camellia japonica, and hybrids of these. The young leaves of another species, camellia sinensis, are actually used to make tea - which, let's face it, we would be lost without these days!

Camellia japonica flowers in late winter and early spring, while camellia sasanqua blooms in autumn and winter, both bringing welcome injections of colour and fragrance.

Camellia japonica is the predominant species and counts over 30,000 cultivars in a wide variety of flower forms and colours. Its shapely habit, glossy foliage and fabulous flowers have attracted gardeners all over the world, and some Japanese camellias around the emperor’s palace in Japan are known to be more than 500 years old.

The evergreen foliage of Japanese camellias is equally prized. The leaves are larger than those of Camellia sasanqua and more leathery too. They will remain deep, shiny green all year, providing year round interest and make wonderful dense hedges.

Camellia sasanqua is one of the loveliest autumn flowers, appearing as summer fades, and as the leaves begin to turn, this beauty bursts into life. The flowers are not quite as large and showy as those of Camellia japonica, but they are of such profusion that a camellia sasanqua in full bloom becomes one of the glories of the autumn garden.

The elegant and open habit of Camellia sasanqua allows them to blend beautifully with other shrubs, without dominating the way larger,, denser growing Camellia japonica may do.

Camellias prefer ericaceous compost and fertiliser and should be well watered through the summer, as this is when the plants produce next year’s flower buds. They do not need to be pruned regularly, but if they outgrow the allotted space, you can trim them into shape after flowering. Hard pruning is best carried out in March, however it may be a couple of years or more before they flower well again.

We stock a number of different options of both japonica and sasanqua at the nursery, in shrub, columnar, parachute, standard and half standard forms; as well as some of the more unusual hybrid varieties.

Magnolias are believed to be the earliest known flowering plants, with their fossils dating back over one hundred million years. Magnolia trees even existed before bees, so they actually rely on beetles for pollination! The flowers produce large quantities of pollen instead of nectar, that beetles then use for food.

These beautiful shrubs and trees are one of the earliest signs of spring, and their development is one of the first signs of this magical shift in the garden. While magnolia is best known for its flowers, its foliage and fruit are also attractive. Their magnificent tulip or star shaped flowers can be as large as saucers when fully opened. Evergreen species have large, glossy, oval shaped leaves all year around. The trees also produce a cone like fruit with brightly coloured seeds that attract songbirds.

Magnolia trees require little care and are long lived with life spans of 100 years or more, given the right growing conditions. They thrive in full sun or partial shade with regular watering, and seldom suffer from serious pests or disease. Younger trees should be watered regularly until fully established, and will always do better in drier spring and summers if watered adequately.

Magnolias typically need very little pruning, other than to remove damaged branches or for aesthetic reasons. The best time for pruning is soon after the tree has finished blooming, in either late spring or early summer. Pruning too late in the season will result in fewer blossoms the following spring.

If your magnolia is growing and flowering well, there is no need to fertilise. However, if your tree isn’t thriving or has yellow leaves, you should have your soil tested. If you do need to fertilise, wait until the spring then apply a slow release fertiliser just as your tree starts to leaf out, in the case of deciduous varieties.

We’ve handpicked a few of our favourite varieties at the nursery that will be sure to bring that bit of magic to your garden too.

Magnolia Susan and Soulangeana are beautiful classic varieties and deserve their recognition as they are stalwarts of the Magnolia genus with their large tulip shaped blooms. Magnolia Stellata has a more feathery type flower, sometimes called the Star Magnolia, although just as beautiful a bloom and often produces more of them.

Magnolia loebneri Merrill produces an abundance of stunning, star shaped flowers that are white and flushed with pink and wonderfully fragrant. Like most Magnolias, Merril grows and flowers best when planted in a slightly sheltered spot.

We do have something for everyone and if you prefer your trees and shrubs evergreen then we have just the magnolia for you. Magnolia Grandiflora is the evergreen magnolia and its foliage is quite different from the deciduous options above.

It has a much larger waxier leaf with a rusty coloured, downy underside. It grows in a naturally conical shape and has the most amazingly huge, creamy white globular blooms. The quantity is outweighed by the magnificence of the few flowers it does have, and being evergreen, they are more expensive than the deciduous varieties.

Flowering later into the summer, these beautiful blossoms have a complex lemon perfume and look magnificent against the dark background of evergreen leaves. As well as some spectacular specimens, we also stock evergreen magnolia in a full frame espalier form, from the ground up, providing exceptional coverage.

So as you can see, there are already lots of different options to give the garden a little spring lift, and we haven’t even started with the most charming cherry and crab apple trees! We’ll have to save them for another day but in the meantime, happy gardening.

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