The Camellia Ark:

Australia’s New Camellia Conservation Project

Stephen Utick*
E.G.Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens Management Committee,
President Avenue, Caringbah NSW 2230Australia
* E-mail: sutick@iimetro.com.au

Australia’s Quarantine Wall for Importation of Camellias

Since 1908, with the passing into law of the Quarantine Act, Australia as an island continent has relied on strict but necessary quarantine provisions as a necessary protection against introduced pests and diseases, including plant pathogens. Australia is one of the few countries that remain free of camellia flower blight, Ciborinia camelliae Kohn. Australia is also concerned about the importation of potentially damaging pathogens carried by foliage and soil. As the incidence of camellia flower blight spread globally, the Australia quarantine provisions for the importation of camellias tightened considerably. Under Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service import condition C9794, camellia flowers and foliage are excluded from importation into Australia; under condition C15029, seed from only 65 camellia species are permitted entry into Australia, with those not listed requiring biosecurity assessment.

The stringent nature of these provisions will have unintended consequences for the future of camellia culture in Australia, given that most garden cultivars (as clones) require propagation from woody cutting material and Australian camellia enthusiasts will no longer be able to import such material from overseas. More significantly, any individual cultivar currently in an Australian collection that is lost for whatever reason, is unfortunately lost to Australian collections for the foreseeable future simply because it cannot be replaced. The members of International Camellia Society (ICS) should note that the potential loss of cultivars would extend beyond Australia, given a large number of rare Australian cultivars which, if not given a foothold in other countries, could also disappear. These latter include much of the horticultural legacy of ICS pioneers including the late Professor Eben Gowrie Waterhouse and the late Mr Tom Savige. Literally hundreds of varieties and a number of species currently in Australia are vulnerable due to the small numbers of representative stock scattered across the country.  In many cases, we are looking at one or a handful of specimens of an individual variety or species. These include a number collected from China by Australian ICS members during the past twenty years before the implementation of quarantine restrictions. Australia’s frequent drought spells and water restrictions often result in unexpected losses of rarer camellia varieties, particularly those of C. reticulata.

One important factor in raising the priority for camellia conservation in Australia has been the significant changes in its commercial nursery trade. These include a progressive reduction in the number of specialist camellia suppliers and a shift towards mass produced nursery stock with a focus on quick cash turnover based on a smaller range of more common varieties. Fortunately, the more hardy C. sasanqua benefit from this, but those seeking C. reticulata and less commercial camellia species and cultivars will find it progressively more difficult to obtain stock. There are, of course, no new C. japonica varieties coming into Australia from overseas. Another factor has been the gradual disappearance of many large suburban gardens that previously contained substantial collections of camellias, due to development pressures within the garden suburbs including subdivision of properties. Furthermore, the number of camellia enthusiasts who can recognise older or more valuable varieties is also dwindling. 

 The Camellia Ark

In response to this challenge, the E.G. Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens at Caringbah in Sydney has provided funds of AU$6000 (US$6400 or 40,000 yuan) for a small but significant project called the Camellia Ark. This project aims to propagate and conserve a representative sample of these vulnerable cultivars for the benefit of Australian horticulture.  The Camellia Gardens has provided these funds to a Sydney camellia nursery Camellias-R-Us for propagating camellia scions and nurturing nursery stock on a non-profit, public-good basis. The Camellia Gardens’ own records revealed scores of camellia varieties that were not held in other Australian collections and were in danger of disappearing fast. Originally established as three-year program to conclude in 2013, it will probably continue beyond to 2015, as numerous cultivars have proved more difficult to propagate than originally anticipated. The scarcity and quality of propagation material of many rare cultivars often proves a barrier to progress.

Camellia Ark has been assisted by Australian ICS members such as Bob Cherry and Graeme Oke who have kindly opened up their own respective private collections to supplement the range of material available for collection. Another ICS member, Silvio Torissi, through his research, has enabled Camellia Ark to trace certain historical C. japonica cultivars of European origin to key garden sites.

Certain aspects of this project may be of special interest to ICS members with an interest in the broader issue conservation of camellias. These aspects include the role of public (or people’s) camellia gardens in collaborating to conserve rare camellia cultivars in their respective collections, a public subscription campaign encouraging the gardening public to sponsor rare camellias, and the collection quest. 

 Cultivar Selection

The program is supported by a team of volunteers from Camellias Australia who assist with selection and collection of scions of rare cultivars. An important tool for selection has been the digital database of camellia collections across Australia maintained by Camellias Australia. This database informs the team of the comparative rarity of the cultivar. In addition, nursery lists and public garden records have proved to be invaluable primary sources to help identify potential material.

The project currently makes provision for conservation of just over 75 cultivars (although this range may be slightly expanded). Comparative rarity, while a primary selection criterion, is not the sole one and other factors weigh in on a decision to select. 

For example, certain cultivars chosen represent examples the legacy of past Australian camellia breeding and selection. These include certain rare Waterhouse cultivars such as C. japonica ‘Henry Price’ and ‘Moonflower’, the Camden Park cultivar C. japonica ‘Cassandra’, Tom Savige’s  C. japonica ‘Imperial Splendour’ and Alison Spragg’s C. japonica ‘Dorothy Murphy’. 

Floricultural merit, overall historical significance and breeding potential are also taken into account. For example, C. japonica ‘Kuro-tsubaki’ has been included in Camellia Ark precisely because of its value as seed parent for breeding dark red flowers; at the time Camellia Ark began, only half a dozen remaining specimens of this cultivar could be traced.

It is impossible to conserve everything, but progress is made in small ways through the salvaging of attractive cultivars such C. japonica ‘Southern Charm’ (US, 1956), C. japonica ‘Pretty Pantalettes’ (US, 1957) and a Higo C. japonica ‘Hinomaru’ with scions taken from the last traceable specimens in Australian camellia collections. In such cases it is a race with the clock; Australia’s final traceable stock plant of ‘Southern Charm’ died after only twelve months of Camellia Ark’s successfully propagation of three grafts of this variety.

Another criterion of selection is botanical curiosity, with up to one third of the collection devoted to a selection of wild camellia species. For this, Camellia Ark acknowledges the generosity of Bob Cherry in allowing Camellia Ark to collect scions from specimens originally collected from provinces in Eastern China, and from Yunnan in particular. The Camellia Ark is probably the last hope for many of these wonderful species to remain in Australian public gardens and private collections. Among the first Camellia Ark successes with such material include C. gauchowensis and an unnamed curio collected from the grounds of a Chuxiong restaurant.

 The role of Public (or People’s) Camellia Gardens

A central principle of Camellia Ark is the promotion of public or people’s camellia gardens as places for Australians to see rarer camellias. Importantly, such gardens are the only places that members of the Australian public might actually see a range of rarer camellias.

Some of these gardens are managed at the municipal level. The E.G. Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens, the hub of the Camellia Ark project, was established in 1970 by Sutherland Shire Council as a Captain Cook Bicentenary Project and contains over 700 camellia specimens over 4.8 hectares overlooking one of southern Sydney’s stunning Port Hacking. The Gardens has undertaken such work as a member of the Garden Plants Conservation Association of Australia, with headquarters at Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens.  Hornsby Shire’s Lisgar Gardens in Sydney’s northern outskirts has proved a most enthusiastic supporter of the Camellia Ark project. Camellia Ark provides an opportunity for local community groups associated with these gardens to learn something about the more precious (and previously unknown) camellias in such collections so that they are better valued by the Australian community. 

Other Australian public gardens and conservation groups that are participating in Camellia Ark include Eryldene Trust in Gordon incorporating the house and garden of E. G. Waterhouse, Wagga Wagga Botanic Gardens, the Camden Park camellia conservation project and Graeme Oke’s beautiful public camellia garden at the Shoalhaven district on the New South Wales south coast. More recently, the gardens at Stangate House in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia has provided valuable scions. All these special public gardens will share in the precious nursery stock propagated by Camellia Ark, which will be placed strategically across collections so that they can be best preserved for Australian horticulture. There are, of course, many camellia collections in state botanic gardens across Australia.  However, the priority for these botanic gardens is to conserve Australian native flora and their resources for garden plant conservation are limited.

Public Subscription and Public Promotion

One special feature of Camellia Ark is the role that the individual home gardener or camellia enthusiast can play in conserving Australia’s rarest camellias. In mid 2010, Derelie and Bob Cherry launched the Camellia Ark banner at an open day at their Kulnura Paradise Garden to draw attention to this aspect of the project. The event was a good omen for Camellia Ark which has now received over AU$3000 in public subscriptions across Australia, covering half the outlay of the project by the E. G. Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens Management Committee. This public subscription scheme is audited annually through Sutherland Shire Council.

For as little as AU$15 home gardeners can sponsor a rare camellia which also entitles them to purchase a plant from the remaining Camellia Ark stock for as little as AU$10.

Garden clubs and associations have been very generous in their support, and many invitations have been received for promotional talks. Through these Camellia Ark promotions, the Australian gardening public is learning more about the wonderful camellias of China and Japan. There is a particular interest in the ethnobotany and culture surrounding the Chinese camellia species that we are trying to conserve for Australian collections. Audiences are entranced by the pictures and stories of the camellias across the numerous provinces of China – they learn for the first time of places like Dali and Chuxiong, and of wonderful collections such as those of Kunming Botanical Garden and the International Camellia Species Garden at Jinhua. As a result of this Congress, the Camellia Ark team looks forward to bringing more of such stories back to Australia. While the Australian gardening public has an appreciation of camellias in general, it is only through the dissemination of cultural information such as this that the public can begin to appreciate camellias in particular. Remarkably, such stories even have an appeal to members of the public with no interest in camellias whatsoever.

Some of our more generous garden club donors will receive some complementary specimens from the collection, and Camellia Ark will encourage them to plant some rare camellia species in their own local public gardens.

 The Collection Quest

One of the more dynamic and challenging aspects of Camellia Ark is the collection quest. As the project builds momentum all sorts of gardens and sites have become open to inspection by the Camellia Ark team. Two which are currently of interest to our team will give ICS delegates a brief overview of this kind of activity.

In the coastal diary hamlet of Pyree on the New South Wales south coast lies a remarkable plantation of over 500 camellias, the remains of what had been passion of a retired dairy farmer, the late Denerley Woolley. The first major plantings began during the 1970s and by the mid 1980s camellia enthusiasts across Australia were stunned by this Woolley collection, which included an impressive range of C. reticulata varieties. Sadly, a major drought reduced this collection considerably and the property was subsequently sold. Fortunately, the new owner (who is a camellia novice) is keen to preserve this collection as best he can, and has kindly agreed to our Camellia Ark team undertaking collection and identification of some of the rarer specimens. This case is an exception; given subdivision and sale of large gardens such as these, many large camellia collections in Australia are likely to disappear.

An even more unusual collection site is the giant Rookwood necropolis and crematorium grounds in inner western Sydney, which dates back to the late nineteenth century. There were significant plantings of camellias on gravesites between the 1930s and 1950s, although most have now died.  However, thanks to research by ICS life member Silvio Torissi, five extremely rare varieties have now been uncovered there, two in the necropolis gardens and three in the crematorium gardens. European camellia enthusiasts will be surprised to learn that Australia’s last known quality specimen of C. japonica ‘Collettii’ (1838) lies over a grave.

The collection quest is often met with dead ends, disappointments and the unexpected. For a long time, the Camellia Ark team has searched for a specimen of C. japonica ‘Bella Romana’ (1856); the records of Lisgar Gardens in Hornsby, Sydney indicated that there was a specimen located there. Early in 2011, the search only revealed a stump – the specimen (if it had been there) had been dead for years.  Recently hopes have been raised again, as a camellia enthusiast in the same street has identified a plant of ‘Bella Romana’ in her own collection – possibly the parent stock plant of the specimen once grown at Lisgar Gardens.

Progress with Cultivation

To date, Camellia Ark through Camellia-R-Us at Glenorie, has successfully propagated over fifty cultivars or species which could be potentially lost to Australian horticulture. Camellias-R-Us has also used a range of propagation techniques including standard grafts, cutting grafts and rooted cuttings to establish this initial nursery stock. Due to the scarcity of quality propagation material, often sourced from only one stock plant, it is difficult to build up stock quickly. In many cases, only one or two specimens of a particular cultivar or species have been initially successfully propagated. During 2012, further cuttings will be taken from more vigorous grafted specimens that were first propagated in 2009.

The project has demonstrated how slow and tortuous the process is of conserving camellias in this situation. Fortunately, it is still possible to import a range of camellia seed into Australia.  Having at least some new camellia material will help maintain an interest in Australian camellia culture. It is in this respect that the Camellia Ark project is seeking the assistance of ICS friends elsewhere.

International Exchange of Scions for Seeds

The Camellia Ark project would like to initiate an exchange program of scions for seeds, with a particular emphasis on building relations between Australia’s public camellia gardens and other similar public gardens in other countries. With respect to China for example, Camellia Ark would be interested acquiring seed of C. reticulata andcertain wild camellia species that could, once propagated, be subsequently featured in public garden displays as part of our international friendship links promoting camellias. In return, our Camellia Ark team would be pleased to exchange scions of rarer Australian varieties that might otherwise disappear over time.

In this small but symbolic way, we advance the cause of conserving rarer camellias (which are often not commercial propositions) such that all potentially benefit from any distribution.  Members of our Camellia Ark team look forward to discussing this proposal with those interested during the course of this Congress.

Fig. 1   E.G. Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens (hub of the Camellia Ark conservation project) at Caringbah, Sydney: Foundation Stone (below left); Camellia Ark volunteers Jim Powell and Stephen Utick search for scions from among the Garden’s collection of Higo camellias (below right).


 Foundation Stone

 among the Garden’s collection of Higo camellias

Fig. 2  Early Camellia Ark successes: C. japonica ‘Henry Price’ (top left); C. japonica ‘Imperial Splendour’ (top right); C. japonica ‘Jinpan Lizhi’ (bottom left); and C. japonica ‘Dorothy Murphy’ (bottom right).

   C. japonica ‘Henry Price’

   C. japonica ‘Imperial Splendour’

    C. japonica ‘Jinpan Lizhi’

   C. japonica ‘Dorothy Murphy’

Fig. 3 Australian Public (People’s) Camellia Gardens promoting camellia conservation: Councillor Robert Browne, Deputy Mayor Hornsby Shire Council with Lorraine Smith of Friends of Lisgar Gardens standing before Lisgar’s C. japonica ‘Cassandra’ (Macarthur, 1849) (left); Robyn Bryce and Graeme Oke beside Australia’s famous Wollemi pine at Oke’s Camellia Garden, Berry, New South Wales, a wonderful repository of rarer camellias (right).

   Deputy Mayor Hornsby Shire Council with Lorraine Smith of Friends of Lisgar Gardens

   Robyn Bryce and Graeme Oke beside Australia’s famous Wollemi pine at Oke’s Camellia Garden

Fig. 4  Fate in the balance for Yunnan reticulatas in Australia: The Camellia Ark project is probably the last hope for Australia retaining a number of reticulatas collected from Yunnan, including C. reticulata ‘Rolling Leaf Butterfly’ (below left) and C. reticulata ‘Chuxiong Gold’ (below right).

    C. reticulata ‘Rolling Leaf Butterfly’

    C. reticulata ‘Chuxiong Gold’

 Fig. 5  Public Promotion: Derelie and Bob Cherry (ICS Life Member) at the launch the Camellia Ark banner at Paradise Gardens, Kulnura, New South Wales in 2010 (below left); Camellia Ark Project Coordinator Stephen Utick receives donations from the Highlands Garden Club presented by the Hon. Pru Goward MLA, New South Wales Minister for Family and Community Services in 2011 (below right).

   the launch the Camellia Ark banner at Paradise Gardens, Kulnura, New South Wales in 2010

   Stephen Utick receives donations from the Highlands Garden Club

Fig. 6  The Collection Quest: A ruined wooden bridge marks the entrance to a plantation of camellias established during the 1970s by the late Denerley Woolley at Pyree, New South Wales (below left); an old camellia bush flowers above the crypt of a Chinese pioneer family at Rookwood Necropolis in Sydney (below right)

   the entrance to a plantation of camellias  

   old camellia bush flowers above the crypt of a Chinese pioneer family  

Silvio Torissi stands beside Australia’s last premium specimen of C. japonica ‘Colettii’ Fig. 7  Life ICS member Silvio Torissi stands beside Australia’s last premium specimen of C. japonica ‘Colettii’ (1838) flourishing over a grave near the Serpentine Garden at Rookwood Necropolis, Sydney. Camellia Ark acknowledges the decades of research undertaken by Silvio in the cause of camellia conservation (right)


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