September 24, 2020

In the garden: Be a good sport

A quirk of plant genetics means that your camellia may start flowering new, unexpected and delightful colours.

During the camellia season, a number of gardeners start to wonder why their plant has suddenly two or even three different coloured flowers on one bush. Perhaps a white flowering camellia has even started a branch that is flowering pink.

Rest at ease, there is nothing wrong with the plant, and this certainly has nothing to do with the bees. What the camellia is doing is mutating, which is also known as “sporting”. An example many gardeners would be familiar with is a variegated plant developing a branch with straight green leaves, which in time becomes part of the shrub. Essentially this comes about through a genetic instability in the plant. Variegated camellias have the greatest tendency to sport.

This is a negative for some plants, but in others such as camellias, it can be a positive. Many new camellia introductions have come about through a plant “throwing a sport”. So camellia growers should keep an eye on any variations that occur during flowering time. There are several important and very productive camellias that have produced quite a family of sports over the years.

Camellia japonica
Aspasia Macarthur is a very early Australian Camellia japonica variety raised by William Macarthur in New South Wales in 1848. Aspasia Macarthur has large cream flowers striped and blotched with pink. Although not widely grown, it has sported famous varieties that are still grown today.

Lady Loch is named after the wife of Sir Henry Loch, who was Governor of Victoria in 1884. This is a beautiful informal deeper pink with light-pink veins and edged white. Can Can is pink with darker veining and petal edges.

Margaret Davis

Margaret Davis (named after the second woman in Australia to hold a pilot’s licence, author and founder of what has become The Garden Club of Australia) is white with bright rose-red petal edges. At least five other sports have been registered, but are no longer widely available.

The most productive and famous camellia for its sporting ability is Elegans, which is widely grown throughout the world. Dating back to 1831, Elegans has a large double centre deep pink, with white blotches. It has produced a remarkable number of sports, some of which have in turn produced further sports.

C.M. Wilson

Sports include CM Wilson with double centre pink with a silver cast. Soft two-tone pink Hawaii is unique as it is a totally different shape flower and looks like a large carnation with a serration to the petal edges. Kona is a white to green form of Hawaii. Shiro Chan is a white form of Elegans with pink flush from under the double petaloid centre. Snow Chan is a pure white form of Shiro Chan. Barbara Woodroofe is a soft blush pink form of CM Wilson. 

Shiro Chan

Now, this is where mutations get really interesting, when not only has the colour changed but the whole plant has changed too. Firstly, the flower on Elegans Supreme, Elegans Splendour and Elegans Champagne have become a much larger double centre, with their petals taking on a fine crepe paper appearance and a very attractive ruffle to the petal edge. The foliage has a character of its own, with larger and longer leaves, heavily serrated with a reticulate appearance. 

Elegans Champagne

Elegans Supreme has a large double centre and watermelon red colour, with crepe paper textured petals. Elegans Splendour is a soft pink colour, edged white with ruffled petal edges. Elegans Champagne is pure white, with pink radiating from the double-centre petaloid. Many camellia enthusiasts watch and wait in the hope to see what “sports” the Elegans family and other camellias might offer up in the future.

At Newman’s we have had a sport occurring on a Bushfield’s yellow plant. To date, there has never been a sport show up anywhere else in the world. The form of the flower and bush is exactly the same as its parent, but the colour is cream, heavily splashed and striped with deep shades of pink, giving it an apricot hue. Very exciting! The name of this sport is still under wraps. We anticipate a limited release of this new variety in 2020.

Camellias are tough and durable plants able to survive harsh conditions and neglect. Many can be found growing in old gardens, parks and cemeteries without any attention. If you visit Newman’s Nursery ruins in Anstey Hill Recreation Park, you can see that one camellia has survived with absolutely no water, fertiliser or care. It has managed numerous bush fires, drought and severe picking by bushwalkers.

Give them some fertiliser to promote strong growth, and some water, mulch and light shade and protection, and they will reward you with their magnificent flamboyant blooms for decades. 


This story first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of SALIFE Gardens and Outdoor Living magazine.

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