Optimismisation – Securing the Future of Australian Camelias

by Andrew Raper – a discussion paper presented at the National Congress in Hobart, August 2010. Andrew is a wholesale nursery proprietor and past president of Camellias Victoria. This article was also published in Camellia News Spring/Summer 2010.

I want to know if any of you have been using fertliser. Are you having success? Many of you have said yes, and that is good— just remember it does not work in the shed!

When I was asked last year to speak at this Congress I immediately said, “Yes”. Now, this is very unusual for me, but I had been working on a good topic, or possibly a sermon, “Propagate or Perish”.

I had done a review of my Price List, and to my horror almost 80% of the list wasCanmews SpringSummer 2010 imported camellias. Many were from the USA, New Zealand and of course Japan, so this got me thinking. Given our new quarantine laws, which preclude the import of any woody plant material we need to do something, right here in Australia or else our beloved camellias will become extinct.


This is the word for our future.  I looked up the “Ozford” dictionary for “OPTIMISMISATION” and it states: “A plan to breed a new generation of camellias for a generation of garden growers that are not yet born.”

This is a very serious situation—the shutters are down.  We can no longer import from Nuccio’s Nursery, or Jury’s or where ever.  Who is prepared to bring in tissue culture and place it into quarantine for three years? I wonder how much all that will cost? Who is prepared to pay for it?  No starters? I see, so we get a nil result at a huge cost!

The quarantine laws are in place for good reason. There are a number of plant diseases in the US and Europe which we need to keep out of Australia.Canmews SpringSummer 2010  Our friends at Monrovia Nursery had to recall a batch of camellias from around the USA due to a disease which would have spread right across the country. Imagine, firstly the potential devastation and secondly, the huge cost of such an exercise.

We are the future—let’s get the best cultivars in your garden, but remember if you plant “dogs” you will get? Yes, that is correct, “dogs”. Raise good cultivars and the future is sound. We cannot continue to let the Bob Cherry’s of the world do it for us.  Raise 10 a year—each and every one of you!

Raising seedlings is easy.  I will show you how to do it.

1 Fill your pot to about 3/4 full with regular camellia and azalea potting mix, (Photo 1)

2 Spread the seeds around the pot, no fuss required. Nice fresh seeds are best I collect them wherever I am out and about, (Photo 2)

3 Cover with river sand, this keeps the moisture level around the seeds reasonably constant.  Make sure the seeds are well covered, (Photos 3 & 4)

4 Place in the shade house, and next year see what you have, (Photos 5 & 6)

5 You must be ruthless—throw out anything that looks poor—remember the “dogs”.Canmews SpringSummer 2010  Throw out stunted or crinkled leaves, (Photos 7 & 8)

6 Pot up the good ones in autumn or winter.  I choose this time of year because that’s when I have the most time for this type of task, (Photos 9 & 10)

7 Label the plants with a good medium that will last at least 3-4 years

8 After two years you will be quite surprised, but remember you must still be ruthless and throw out the “dogs”, (Photo 11)

Once you start having blooms, remember the ruthless rule but do not throw out the plants—save them for grafting understock.  (See photos of seedlings at 3 years)

Bob Cherry gave me some C. nitidissima seeds which have all taken beautifully. I gave them no special care except to use a bigger container because I had a large number of seeds.  They all have taken well; I put in 80 seeds and got 80 to grow.

Notice how consistent the growth is—this is very good. I like C. nitidissima and would like to see more out in the market place  (See photo)

Take a look at the camellia ‘Kitty Bawden’, (Photo) A Western Australian japonica, but who has heard of ‘Kitty Bawden’. Not many unfortunately, and we cannot easily buy it in the public domain, except maybe in Western Australia!Canmews SpringSummer 2010

We need camellias like this! The people not yet born need camellias like this! This is an opportunity of a lifetime, for us to promote the “best white C. japonica going”, something wonderful for those not yet born.

There are more out there like Neil and Jean Saltmarsh’s “Pink Bounty’ from Warragul.  It is one of the prettiest garden growing varieties (see photo). This is the way of the future. We can’t be putting forward tricky little things.

Who likes C. reticulatas? Put them away, save them for use amongst yourselves.  We must grow things that are easy to propagate and easy to grow. Any process that requires grafting from a commercial sense is stupid, stupid, stupid!

I like C. reticulata but we must be honest.  The market for C. reticulata is very small so we should not go there.

Take your seedlings to your group and have others honestly assess them.  If you end up with a three petalled japonica that you think is the best thing you have ever seen, have others give you an honest answer “we do not think this has the potential”, and then you agree, “I thought that too”.  Remember putting “crap” on the market does not help; we need the good stuff out there.

This is another Victorian seedling called ‘Wills Wonder’   cross between ’Paradise Belinda’ and ‘Spring Festival’.  It is an absolute flower storm and is currently under garden testing around our members.  One thing we are finding with it is that although it is a very good container plant, the flowers seem to get smaller once the plants are in the ground, (see photo).

I really encourage you to have a go.  Get started, it is fun! To get started any seeds will do, just have the experience of raising them, and once you start you will actually get a lot of pleasure from growing them.

The future of camellias is in your hands, take a look at the people around you and be honest—you haven’t got long! Your project to flowering is a 15 year project, so get started! If we get no new camellias that is like going down to your Holden dealer and asking for an “EH Holden please”!

Whilst there is nothing wrong with the old camellias, things like a ‘Great Eastern’ or an ’Emperor of Russia’ (which is also an import) are fine, but the market is always gravitating to something new.

So the plan is simple—find something new.


Camellias Australia members must actively breed and share these good results.  Market these good results

Bob Cherry has offered Camellias Australia a camellia that is well advanced towards final marketing.  Through proper copyright and other processes the society can accept a royalty whenever a plant is sold

Those of you with sufficient space in your gardens can utilise a process that Mark Jury has shown me. Mark plants his seedlings in the ground and in a row. The same process applies—cut off the dogs and save for understock, only keep the good ones. C. japonica ‘Fairy Floss’ was the only survivor in its row.

Remember, we do not need 500,000, just the good ones. Back in the 70s and 80s many miniatures were marketed but few remain except for the blooms like the Wirlinga range from Tom Savige.  Part of the process is to ensure that your plant can stand the test of time.

The rain during 2010 has rejuvenated an interest in gardening. Gardeners are removing the dreaded Flax plants and replacing them with camellias, azaleas and other so called exotics.

When you get a good one please remember that names are very important.  Do you really want a camellia called ‘Ruta Hagman’?  More modern names are now popular, such as ‘Nicole’ and why is this you ask?  Because there are lots of Nicoles out there but not many Ruta Hagmans.

Fertilising your camellias is important, but I am lazy and like to keep it simple.  Try long-term slow release fertilisers and then only do it once per year.

Another risk we face in our market is the trend by the “mass retailers” to sell red, white and pink camellias. Our charter in Camellias Australia is to promote camellias and avoid the over simplification of the genus.

Get your children and grandchildren involved in gardening. Recently we have reverted to homegrown vegies involving school children, and this is good! It is not easy! So far there are no gardening games on X-Box, so keep it simple initially.  Once kids get the thrill and enjoyment from growing something easy like herbs and vegies then you might just get them to join you in producing some seedlings

Do it now, collect your seeds as you wander about and realize:


Camellias need you!