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Camellia Hybrids: What, When, and Why

by George Wright

'Tiny Princess'
Sometimes it’s nice to fool around with Mother Nature. Otherwise, hybrid camellias would not be available for gardens today, and credit for the first garden hybrids may belong to Mother Nature herself. In Oriental gardens, hundreds of years ago, pollen from one species of camellia found the flower of another species. The seed that
developed dropped, germinated, and grew into a plant different from each parent, yet bearing characteristics of both.

The idea of breeding different species from a large genus of plants, such as camellias, intrigued Western nurserymen of the mid-twentieth century. But, why not? Humans historically have tampered with Mother Nature to create their versions of improved plants and animals. Cattlemen have crossed and crisscrossed bloodlines for decades to create super races of cows. They’ve even bred cattle and buffalo for a hundred-and-fifty years, ever striving to develop superior specimens. Horsemen do it, farmers do it, and mad scientists do it. Why not nurserymen? Besides, it’s fun to tinker with genetics, to hatch new ideas, and to mold the future.

The first Western nurseryman to achieve recognition for his work with camellia hybrids was J. C. Williams of Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, England.He took camellia seeds that had been brought to England from China and planted them in the castle gardens. Some of this seed was later determined to belong to Camellia saluenensis. This species crossed with Camellia japonica in the gardens and produced a heavy-blooming, pink offspring that was named ‘J. C. Williams.’ Other saluenensis hybrid introductions followed. They became known as the C.x williamsii hybrids. Curiously, the new progeny proved to be considerably more cold tolerant than either parent species.

The williamsii hybrids were commercially successful and catalytic in spurring the imagination of growers. Nurserymen began to branch out along other avenues in the broad world of camellia propagation. Professor E. G. Waterhouse of New South Wales, Australia, who experimented with saluenensis seedlings and introduced stunning hybrids in the mid-1950s, opened the door of excitement even further. The most celebrated of these plants was ‘E. G. Waterhouse,’ a pink, formal double, and ‘Lady Gowrie,’ a large, pink semi-double.

In New Zealand, Dr. Brian Doak was breaking ground with his efforts to cross C. saluenensis with C. reticulata. Utilizing saluenensis as the seed parent, Dr. Doak achieved acclaim with his large, flowering hybrids, ‘Phyl Doak’ and ‘Barbara Clark.’

At the same time a fellow countryman of Dr. Doak’s was kindling other camellia fires with his own creations. Les Jury systematically developed hybrid camellias and by the early 1960s had raised nearly 1000 saluenensis seedlings. Among his noted introductions were ‘Elsie Jury,’ ‘Elegant Beauty,’ ‘Anticipation,’ and ‘Grand Jury.’

The work of these camellia hybridization pioneers had not gone unnoticed in the United States where C. japonica and C. reticulata selections ruled the show stage, while C. japonica and C. sasanquadominated gardens. But, by the mid-1960s, the interest in camellias that had inflamed the public like wildfire only ten years earlier had fizzled to a fading flicker. The flood of new C. japonica varieties throughout the 1940s and 50s doused the camellia fires with waves of overkill. But hybrids still offered new possibilities: camellias with fragrance, or yellow flowers, or black ones striped orange, or crawling growth habits, or freeze resistance, or increased bud production, or whatever characteristic the imagination could conceive.

A new crop of camellia growers sprang up in the field of camellia hybridization. Hybridizers imported new species and mingled them among established plants. Methods of development changed. Raising chance seedlings of unknown parentage gave way to systems of controlled pollination and more technical approaches to genetic breeding. And new kinds of wonderful plants began to spring up.

One of the first successful U.S. introductions came from Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California. It was a cross between C. pitardii and C. reticulata, had large semi-double blooms, and was named ‘Carl Tourje.’ Other new introductions followed, some crosses to C. japonica and some the offspring of species that were relatively unknown and certainly untried. In the mid-1960s, California’s well-known hybrid pioneer, Howard Asper, successfully united C. reticulata and C. sasanqua. The results were ‘Flower Girl,’ ‘Show Girl,’ and ‘Dream Girl.’ Their upright growth produced a profusion of buds that opened into large, pink, semi-double, peony-like blooms with a crepe-paper texture to the flower petals.

The noted camellia nurseryman, K. Sawada of Mobile, Alabama, produced a C. fraterna cross that was unlike anything seen at the time. His ‘Tiny Princess’ produced a miniature pink bloom that covered the willowy branches during mid-season. The leaves were small and silvery green, different from the typical dark green camellia foliage.

Because of the popularity reaped by C. reticulata at show tables, efforts were made to cross its flowering traits with the durability and bushy growth habits of other species, particularly C. japonica. Some spectacular varieties resulted that can be cultivated outdoors in many regions, especially if tree cover or other protection exists. Among these showy hybrids are ‘Dr. Clifford Parks,’ ‘Lasca Beauty,’ ‘Francie L,’ ‘Dr. Louis Polizzi,’ ‘Emma Gaeta,’ ‘Pleasant Memories,’ ‘William Sellers,’ ‘Frank Houser,’ ‘Edna Bass,’ and ‘Hulyn Smith.’

'Tulip Time'
Still, the species of choice for fruitful hybridization has remained saluenensis because of its flower production and its accepting nature toward foreign pollen. One of the most successful saluenensis crosses was the New Zealand trophy ‘Taylor’s Perfection.’ Introduced in 1975, this heavy-blooming, rapid-
growing plant flaunts masses of large, pink blooms for weeks beginning in mid-season. Other impressive saluenensis hybrids include ‘Tulip Time,’ ‘Dreamboat,’ ‘Delores Edwards,’ ‘South Seas,’ ‘Buttons ‘n Bows,’ and ‘Cile Mitchell.’

Some of the most rewarding results in new camellia production have been made on the frontier of fragrance. Some C. japonica varieties produce a mild scent (‘Herme,’ and ‘Kramer’s Supreme’ among few others), but most display blossoms into which every gardener instinctively bends to bury his nose, but to no avail. They bloom for his eyes only, not for his nose. But those days of senseless, scentless flowers are over. C. lutchuensis hybrids are available now and have given the garden a new smell as well as a new look. Another area where hybrids have broken new ground is the field of cold tolerance. Some pure japonicas exhibited a strong tolerance for cold and could flower despite adverse conditions.

'Dr. Tinsley'
Today’s camellia-lined paths are sweet-scented thanks to such perfumed performers as ‘Fragrant Pink,’ ‘Scentuous,’ ‘Cinnamon Cindy,’ ‘High Fragrance,’ ‘Ack-scent,’ and ‘Fragrant Joy.’ The infusion of fragrance into camellias has been a popular addition. Now winter’s bloom offers everything that
the summer’s rose does, except thorns. ‘Magnoliaeflora,’ ‘Berenice Boddy,’ ‘Dr. Tinsley,’ and ‘Princess Lavender’ are a few that display this characteristic. Most varieties are not cold-hardy, and an entire blooming season can be lost on a frigid night.

Today’s new cold-resistant introductions are more reliable bloomers in established camellia regions, but their greatest value lies in the expansion of the camellia realm northward to areas where camellia plants could previously not have survived. Two acknowledged innovators of camellia development, Dr. William Ackerman of Glenn Dale, Maryland and Dr. Clifford Parks of Chapel Hill, N. C., have spearheaded much of the research in this area.

By using primarily crosses of C. oleifera, such successful varieties as ‘Winter’s Charm,’ ‘Winter’s Joy,’ ‘Winter’s Rose,’ ‘Snow Flurry,’ ‘Pink Icicle,’ and ‘Ashton’s Pride’ have entered gardens.Other hybrid gems that would adorn any garden include ‘Julie,’ an upright grower with lovely pink blooms, ‘Joe Nuccio,’ an early-blooming, japonica-looking hybrid with deep pink, formal double flowers, ‘Isaribi,’ a pink, miniature, semi-double descending from C. japonica ‘Berenice Boddy,’ and ‘Spring Festival,’ a C. cuspidata seedling of pink, rose-form, miniature blooms that open late in the season.

While this article barely scratches the surface of the rapidly increasing world of hybrid camellias, this world is but the tip of a floral iceberg. Hybrids are the camellias of the future, and the steady stream of production over the past forty years will keep flowing, as additional generations of crosses and back crosses develop.

Camellia lovers are in for a treat and are making room to blend today’s hybrids with yesterday’s treasures. These new additions promise to enhance gardens by flowering in colder weather, unveiling new colors, adding fragrance, and extending the bloom season. A new dimension of camellias stands ready to burst forth. Mother Nature’s got a whole new playground where she can fool around.


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Glossary Terms
Double Flower

Related Plants
Freedom Bell Red Camellia (Camellia x ‘Freedom Bell’ )
Japanese Camellia (Camellia japonica )
Pink Icicle Camellia (Camellia x ‘Pink Icicle’ )
Pink Tea Camellia (Camellia sinensis ‘Rosea’ )
Sasanqua Camellia (Camellia sasanqua )
Snow Flurry White Camellia (Camellia x ‘Snow Flurry’ )
Two Marthas Pink Camellia (Camellia x ‘Two Marthas’ )
Winter's Star Camellia (Camellia x ‘Winter's Star’ )

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