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The Journey to a new National Collection
Camellia reticulata and its hybrids

John Price


          The East India Company of London was founded in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 and was chartered with a monopoly of all (British) trade east of the Cape of Good Hope.   This was initially anticipated to be for the East Indies themselves but rapidly expanded to India and then to China
          Exploration, the establishment of empire and straightforward commercial trade always had its corollary in the discovery and introduction (to the Western world) of new plant species.  The East India Co. had the greatest merchant fleet of its day and the many individuals involved from its London-base; directors, ships’ captains, company doctors and other officials, often had an interest in the plants newly discovered in these foreign lands.
          The camellia reached Europe in the 1700's.  A few plants of identifiable varieties survived the lengthy and hazardous journey.  Others arrived as seeds (notably the species C. japonica itself)
          In 1820 Richard Rawes, captain of the Warren Hastings, a merchantman of the E.I.Co, brought home a camellia for his sister who was married to an E.I.Co. director, a camellia that still today bears his name.
 This was the first example of the species C. reticulata seen in the West; although Lord Petre of Thorndon Hall, Essex may have had an earlier import (around 1740) of a grafted reticulata whose scion had died leaving him with only the japonica rootstock.
         Robert Fortune travelled to China in the 1840's first for the RHS and later with the E.I.Co. From his journeys we received another reticulata,  ‘Songzilin’ (syn ‘Pagoda’ or ‘Robert Fortune’).
This brings us to the present time or, at least, to the origin of this new collection.
  I came into the horticultural business 45 years ago with only an interest, folly and enthusiasm after an education and qualification that led to fourteen years in industrial chemistry----the ‘witches brew’ world of electroplating where potassium cyanide and boiling vats were my daily bread and butter!   I had a childhood interest in gardens that had me relishing any stay with two elderly aunts whose home was just five minutes from Kew Gardens in London through which I could wander for hours (free admission in those days) gathering the leaves and labels (the latter in my notebook—not literally) of the worlds exotic trees and shrubs.  So a childhood passion became a second career and a meagre living. (“Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington” as the old Music Hall song goes!)
          Retirement, like other milestones in my life, was never a specific date or birthday, more a conspiracy of circumstances and another opportunity, As my own nursery business (growing roses, hydrangeas and camellias over the years) was winding down I received an invitation to “Come and be a volunteer at Tregothnan”.  

         Tregothnan is a large estate in Cornwall with several centuries of garden history. The bare-bones implication of this was rather unattractive but, exploring a little deeper, emerged the idea, indeed the wish, of the estate to assemble significant collections of camellias within the garden.  The magic words ‘National Collection’ were mooted and I was hooked.
          The owner had in mind the establishment of an avenue of C. sasanqua on the long Farm Drive. The garden also contained small groups of both camellia species and C. reticulata both sourced from Nuccio's Nurseries at the time of the San Francisco Congress in 2001. Perhaps there was a potential National Collection there somewhere?
          The availability of these three groups is not great in England. They are overshadowed by both the japonica and williamsii hybrids.  Species are regarded as a bit unexciting and sasanquas bloom only modestly after the average English summer.  But the reticulatas...... ? They are something different.   They are proven to do well in our equable Cornish climate, their blooms are often big, bold and glamorous and they have stories to tell.  Hailing from Yunnan province in SW China that is both the mecca of camellia enthusiasts today and of the great plant hunters of yesteryear.

          The garden already contains a wealth of camellias and was visited by delegates at the Falmouth Congress in 2008.  But how many reticulatas were present?  The garden records gave a clue but most useful was a garden walk with the very elderly owner, Lord Falmouth himself, who had lived on the estate his entire life.  Some ten varieties were located but pride-of-place must go to a large wild form reticulata that Lord Falmouth remembered as “always being in bloom each spring since I was a boy”.   That was in the 1930's.

          After Robert Fortune's forays into China in the 1840's, C. reticulata does not get a mention until George Forrest brought back seed of a wild form of C. reticulata from his Yunnan expedition in 1924.  This expedition was funded by a syndicate of which J. C. Williams of Caerhays Castle was a member and to whom this seed was sent.  This seed is recorded at Caerhays as Forrest no 25352. It was planted there and first bloomed 4 May 1929.
 Lord Falmouth believes that the Tregothnan reticulata came from Caerhays as a young plant from this batch of seedlings.  This deduction has been verified by Charles Williams in a letter (E-mail) dated 25.2 2015.   This plant thrives in the garden to this day and produces seed in some years. Seedlings from this are being used from time to time as rootstocks making this venerable tree a genuine patriarch of this new National Collection. Bean refers to the same Forrest collection, noting that it bloomed at Caerhays in 1932. This reference has been carried forward into other publications but the most recent authority of Charles Williams  (25.2.2015) is taken as being the most reliable in the author's opinion.

6 FORREST tree edit

 Wild collected reticulata believed to be from the Forrest expedition of 1924

          Expanding the collection:  in England this is easier said than done! Very few reticulatas are available within the nursery trade.  Forays were made to the very few British nurseries offering them. More success was found when reaching out to suppliers in Brittany, France. In the course of travel to generally warmer climates they were found to be much more readily available, indeed prolific in China (Yunnan), Australia and USA.


 Young plant of C. reticulata ‘Hulyn Smith’

          Small collections do exist in gardens throughout the southern counties of England and scion material has been forthcoming from such sources.  This has however meant acquiring a new skill, that of grafting.  I had no experience of this after a lifetime of propagation built on cuttings technology. I soon found out why. Reticulatas do not root easily from cuttings and even if they do root they often fail to grow away. When japonica parentage is dominant in a hybrid the variety will often root successfully and has been joyfully exploited when this is so. But the need for grafting skill is paramount.

Young grafts 2

 Young reticulata grafts

  England has, in my opinion and I would genuinely welcome any correspondence on this point, the most difficult of climates for propagation.  We lack any intrinsic seasonal humid warmth that encourages young new growth:  we suffer the ups and downs of a relatively cool and variable maritime climate. In the initial stages of propagation everything is, so often, frustratingly slow and therefore vulnerable. Mist and bottom heat are there to help of course as well as skill in selecting the correct starting material but ‘our green and pleasant land’ is an illusion on the propagating bench.
          Tradition decrees late winter cleft grating, almost ‘pushing one's luck’ up to the point of new sap flow and bud burst, but never at or beyond this point.   A second season opens after the spring flush of growth hardens.  This is good for approach grafting and utilises potted mother plants and small potted rootstocks. Both units are themselves growing and capable of independence whilst uniting. Patience is of the essence here, not to sever anything too soon. A third technique is cutting grafts.  In the traditional camellia cuttings season, ie when the new growth is semi-ripe, a reticulata scion is cleft into an easy-rooting but strong-growing (more tree-like than bush) japonica or other vigorous-rooting cutting.  The bound twin - a cutting-graft - is then inserted into compost exactly as a single cutting, rooted and, later, the top of the japonica cutting is removed.

          Plant Heritage is the arbiter of all British National Collections.  It has rules—quite sensibly so—but seemingly labyrinthine to a novice.  Formerly the scope of a collection was governed by the listings within the Plant Finder publication.  This soon put me at loggerheads with the authorities.  The Plant Finder is all too frequently a ‘we-try to-grow-it-but-we-have-no-stock-this-year’ sort of list that was also fraught with errors of nomenclature.  Today this has changed and the International Camellia Society Register is the accepted bible.
           It is also required of a National Collection holder that all plants are growing in the ground (not in pots) on a permanent site and that there are duplicates similarly established for the whole collection.  This makes the skill of grafting critically important for the continuity of the project. It is also easier to find a scion than to acquire an established plant.                                                                

           Access. It is a requirement that the collection be open to interested parties.  This has various interpretations but some form of accessibility is part of the deal. Usually it means, ‘just ask’ although collections are often situated in gardens where public access is part of their raison d'etre. Essentially the work going on is for the good of the camellia community.

            Records:   Good and permanent documentation is also required.   Today this means a spreadsheet system that is easily accessible and updateable.   A workaday diary is also kept, recording observations, successes and failures and, hopefully, those gems that your successor might find in future time.  These records aspire to the long-term not just to the current holder of the Collection.
             It took two submissions. We were rejected the first time for the reason that the whole thing was judged too young to be considered established.   Second time lucky but it took eight years of steady work, lots of failures (with the grafting, so all-important for the continuity of the collection) but finally we have a collection of some eighty cultivars, and rising.

John Price 2

  John would welcome any questions or comments on his work with the Tregothnan Reticulata collection.



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