When I visited Kilmacurragh the other week I was excited to see a rather interesting camellia in the distance. As I got closer I was impressed by the rather steely blue leaves and the large white flowers and couldn’t wait to see what it was. So I was puzzled to see that the camellia was not a camellia at all but a gordonia. It was Gordonia yunnanensis. To add to the confusion it is possibly now more properly called Polyspora yunnanensis.
But why is a plant that is so obviously a camellia not a camellia? Well I am afraid that I cannot find out but, having a look at the flowers my best guess is that camellias have a style ( the female part of the flower that receives the pollen) that is simple and unbranched but, looking at the flowers, gordonias have a style with six or seven style lobes. Now I won’t say this is gospel because it is just an observation and I am not a botanist, worse luck, and I can find no information about what makes a gordonia a gordonia and not a camellia.
Whatever it is called, this is a striking plant that appears to be no more difficult to grow in a moist, maritime climate than a camellia. What makes it worth searching out is the foliage which is distinctly different with a lush look and with a metallic cast and red stems. The flowers are large, about 12cm – 15cm across and white when fully open with a pink flush on the reverse of the petals. They also have a light fragrance which I noticed. Apparently this evergreen shrub can reach 28m high in the wild, which must be some sight, but the plant I saw was about 3m high and I am sure it could be kept compact with regular pruning. Either way, this is a splendid shrub for a mild garden.
There is a cultivar called ‘Moonlight Magic’ which seems to be available in the southern hemisphere but I am not sure how this differs from the species.
And so we come to the other weird camellia I saw. This is Camellia tsai, and you would hardly think it was a camellia at all. It is a graceful foliage shrub with small, willow-like leaves and a slightly weeping habit. The foliage is supposed to be coppery when young but light green when mature. Upon investigation it seems that some plants are deciduous and this may be due to climate. It is a native to southern China and Myanmar (Burma) and it may lose its leaves in colder climates. But in Ireland it is at least semi-evergreen because the plant here was in full leaf. It lacks the stiffness of regular camellias and is a very attractive foliage shrub. But the flowers are what makes this distinctive: they are tiny. They seem to have only four or five, pure white petals and yellow stamens (from my observation) and are only about 1cm across (it was a cold day so they may open more fully in warmth). It is said that they are fragrant but I could detect no scent. It is worth planting by ‘the curious gardener’ but this is a bit of a specialist plant I think.