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Camellia Sasanqua - In Honour of the Autumn Sun

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Camellia sasangua 08-230x153In the ancient garden world of Japan and China, Gardeners and Naturalists used to know exactly when true Autumn had arrived for that was the day the first Sasanqua Camellias burst into bloom. In fact, their name in Japanese is Sazanka.

Which is commonly known as the ‘Flower of the Autumn Sun’. Sazanka actually better translates as: ‘tea-plum-blossom’ or ‘mountain-tea-flower’. In Chinese it is known as Cha Mai, which means ‘tea pretty’. For many centuries this highly attractive and versatile Camellia has been a favourite of Gardeners in Asia.

It is an evergreen wild species in the coastal and mountain highlands of central and southern Japan. Most often found on the islands of Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa up to about 900 meters in elevation.

First records of Sazanka being planted in the gardens of Japan occurred with Horticultural Pioneer, Ihei Ito (1695-1733) and soon it became quite popular as almost the ‘backbone’ of many Japanese landscape gardens. Around the same time it was introduced into China where it is also revered as decorative garden favourite.

Sazanka became known as Sasanqua by Dutch traders who mispronounced its name when importing it into Europe around 1869.  Shortly thereafter, it was introduced into North America and later Australia and New Zealand. Since it’s’ introduction to the West, Sasanqua has become increasingly popular, especially in milder climates that experience a cool, long Autumn and milder Winter climate.

Today ‘Sasanqua’ is a blanket name that covers several closely related Camellia species known in Japan as ‘Egao’ Camellias. These have been much interbred to produce today’s wide variety of cultivars. This includes true Camellia sasanqua usually with single of semi-double medium to smallish dark to pastel pink or white flowers on compact evergreen shrubs to 5m/16.7ft. and often much shorter.  Very similar is C. hiemalis which has produced most of the anemone, double and peony-formed flowers like ‘Shishigashira’, ‘Showa-no-Sakae’ and ‘Kanjiro’.  Camellia vernalis has the only true deeper pink and true red varieties with the best known of these being ‘Yuletide’ with its deep Christmas red single blooms with bright yellow stamens contrasting against holly-green foliage and  ‘Hiryu’ (hybrid cross with C. hiemalis)  and its many cultivars with vivid pink blooms in semi-double and single forms.

Camellia miyagii, C kissii, C. brevistyla are all very similar species. Camellia oleifera, parent of the hardy and very cold-tolerant ‘Ackerman’ series of ‘Sasanquas’ are often known as the ‘Winter’s Rose’ for its tendency to flower during the very coldest months. Camellia oleifera is also known as the ‘Tea Oil Camellia’ as this is the main source of high quality oil produced for cooking, cosmetics, lighting, and lubrication. The oil is produced from its nuts and seeds. Its leaves are used to make tea. Almost all Camellias in the Sasanqua group can be used to produce tea from their leaves plus nourishing and useful oil from their nuts and seeds.

All Camellia sasanqua and related species and varieties are evergreen. Some hybrid cultivars are very compact and dwarf, others create sprawling or trailing ground covers often growing no taller than 1m/3.34ft and prune to much less; many are fairly dense shrubs and some eventually grow into small ornamental trees from 5-8 m/ 16.7-26.7 ft. tall.  Sometimes these are quite upright or rounded and occasionally weeping in habit.

Their rather small leaves are broad and elliptic with a finely serrated edge; usually 3–7+cm/ 1.2- 3 inches long and 1.2–3 cm/1/2-1.2+ inches broad. Leaves are an attractive bright to dark glossy green often with distinctive amber, red or russet cast when young.  Once the foliage matures, it is quite durable and evergreen. Thus it is frequently used by Florists and in Floral art designs as it is long-lasting and stems are very flexible and pliable for artistic arrangements.

Sasanqua Camellias are prolific and reliable flowerers over a long period starting in Early Autumn with some varieties continuing to bloom right into Spring. Early-flowering species usually finish by Late Autumn or Early Winter. While late-flowering species often start in Winter and finish in (usually early) Spring.

Sasanqua flowers are approximately 5–7+ cm/2-3inches in diameter, usually with 5-8 or more delicate petals. Some varieties are fully double; others have a fluffy anemone centre while the classic blooms are single or semi-double in form. Usually a few flowers open sporadically and rather soon blossoms open over the entire plant. At their peak flowering, almost every branching stem will have at least one or two blooms open simultaneously.

Most Sasanquas flower in shades of pink, red or white and many mixed shadings often in delicate pastels and softer tones. Sasanqua blooms often exhibit a delicate beauty, grace and simplicity. These flowers are somewhat smaller than the classic Camellia japonica species plus most varieties are usually not as double or formal in their flower shape. Many produce single flowers with a prominent centre of yellow stamens. These somewhat resemble Cistus, the Rock Rose, or Gordonia blooms. Other Gardeners associate them with Rosa rugosa, the Wild Rose. Flower petals drop or shatter rather easily so they are much better left on the shrub than picked as they won’t last for long. What Camellia sasanqua lacks in flower form it makes up for in their profusion. Often the shrubs or small trees are smothered in honey/tea/vanilla-scented flowers right when floral colour is becoming scarce. The blooms have a durability to withstand inclement weather and even when they are shattered by storms, more blooms are produced in quick succession.

Camellia sasanqua is often a dense and rapid grower.  Some varieties are somewhat sprawling, trailing or willowy in their habit of new growth while others are much more upright. This Camellia is often used as a most spectacular flowering evergreen hedge. As even the trailing varieties respond very well to pruning and soon build up to make fairly dense evergreen shrubs. The long, trailing branches soon interlock to create a very solid background to other plantings and make a wonderful screen or shelter against wind. If allowed to develop naturally, most varieties soon become a dense and rounded shrub. Then as they develop and foliage mounds upon itself, some varieties will eventually assume the proportions of a small, semi-weeping tree with smooth, polished bark. A well-pruned Camellia sasanqua tree in full bloom is an imposing site as a cloud of blossom with sweet scent drifting on the breeze and flower petals fluttering down like floral snow to carpet the ground beneath them. One treasured variety is even called ‘Snowflake’ and a similar variety, ‘Carpet of Snow’.

Because the new growth appears as long and pliable whips, it can be easily trained as an espalier to drape over a pergola, up a trellis or wall. In some varieties this weeping habit has been accentuated to create truly weeping forms that are highly effective as groundcovers, trailers that cascade over walls and banks, or highly unusual and attractive hanging basket plants.

Autumn through Early Spring are the best months to plant most Camellias including all the C. sasanqua varieties and related species. This is best done as soon as the weather cools and becomes reliable damper in the Autumn. If regular and reliable irrigation is available, they can go in even in the earliest days of Autumn onward especially when planted from containers with no root damage or shock at the time of transplanting.

The earlier the planting the better so that the shrubs can become well established with a strong and supportive root system before Late Spring’s drying winds put them under stress. In warmer (sub) tropical climates with drier and sunny Winter weather, make sure that they are regularly watered and never wilt. Once they establish an anchoring root system they will need little extra care. They prefer similar placement to Azaleas, Camellia japonica, Daphne, Gardenia, Pieris japonica (Lily-of-the-Valley shrub), Osmanthus and Rhododendrons. All of these shrubs look excellent when inter-planted together and make quite a spectacular evergreen floral display.

But Sasanqua is very hardy and will often survive where the others won’t. For best results choose a sheltered site out of severe winds and extremes of cold, dry and hot. They don’t like drying out completely or overheating so choose a site that stays moderately moist but with good drainage and also has a good natural air flow.

Camellia sasanqua loves the sun so wherever possible, give them plenty of sunshine. This is especially true in cool and maritime climates that do not experience glaring and scorching Summer sun. In colder climates that experience at least some extreme freezing, they are best planted near a building or within a sheltering shrubbery that protects their blooms from winter’s frosts. They are hardy through Climate Zone 7 and also Zone 6 when planted in a sheltered position.

In very warm and near-tropical climates they are best planted with some protective shading. Best flowering and leaf colour seem to come by planting them in a strong morning sun position. They foliage is hardy enough to endure some morning shade and afternoon sunshine but may develop Mite or Thrip attack during dry and hot climatic extremes. Camellia sasanqua will often perform very well in dappled sun or partial shade provided by over head trees or even within the hedging or wind-break shelter of taller and more robust species like Acmena (Monkey Apple) or Bay Laurel (Laurel nobilis) with a similar leaf form.

Due to their ability to withstand strong sunlight, Camellia sasanqua is often planted amongst Roses: bush, climbers, and ground-cover plus standard types. Their evergreen foliage makes a lovely foil to Rose flowers and remains glossy green and most attractive when the Roses are dormant. Plus this is when they bloom which adds colour and fragrance almost from the day that most Roses stop flowering.

While they prefer light, fluffy soils rich in compost and leaf mould; similar to those found in deciduous forest mountainous regions where they are native, Sasanqua can also thrive in poorer soils and even clay provided drainage and extremes of dry, heat and cold are controlled. They prefer an acid soil but will grow in a wide variety of soil types from rather heavy clay to sandy soils that remain relatively moist but that drain well. They do not like land that completely dries out nor will they perform well in sodden land with constant ‘wet feet’.

Like most Camellias, they do produce surface roots as well and much deeper anchoring root systems. So they respond well to mulching that maintains an evenly moist, fertile, organic soil. In such a position, they need little care. But they do respond to occasional fertilizer applications with an acid pH as would be used on other species of Camellia, Daphne, Rhododendrons as well as Azaleas, Gardenias and other acid-loving plants. This can be maintained by feeding at least twice a year just after flowering in Late Winter/Spring and again in Late Summer/Early Autumn before flowering.  To bring on the best flowering, maintain abundant and regular watering plus high Phosphorous-Potassium feeding from Early-Mid Summer when buds first begin to form mostly near the branching tips.

Always use an acid-pH fertiliser suitable for Camellias and other acid-loving species. For best results feed more heavily with a Nitrogen-rich fertiliser (like blood and bone) in the Spring to promote healthy, lush strong growth while Mid/Late Summer feedings should be higher in Phosphate and Potash to develop better blooming.

When grown in the ‘right’ location, of which there are many, C. sasanqua suffers from few diseases or pests and can prove a reward plant for a lifetime. When subjected to climatic extremes, leaves can scorch or shrubs wither in excessive drought, dry and heat. This is most often when they are attacked by Aphids, Mealy Bug, Scale, Spider Mites and Thrip plus occasionally fungal leaf galls or Sooty Mould caused from the secretions of predating insects.  A combination of excessive drought, lack of Summer feeding and insect attack are the most like cause of bud drop or general failure to bloom.

Sometimes excessive watering or very wet soils that drain poorly will result in root rot. This often first appears as yellowing foliage that sometimes spots or drops prematurely. Following this, emerging buds may drop or fail to open properly or the entire plant may collapse. C. sasanqua grown in poorly draining wet land are much more prone to damage by freezing temperatures and chilling winds, too.

Tender foliage can be frost-damaged in climate Zone 7 and colder during their coldest wintry weather. Usually mild frosts and light freezing with temperatures of 26-35F/-3 to 2C cause no damage whatsoever. They can often tolerate much colder periods of brief freezing down to 0-18F/-18 to -8 C but bud, flower and tip damage are likely especially if the period(s) of freezing are long and persistent. In borderline climates, cold damage can be minimalized by planting near or under taller protective conifers or evergreens or planting near the protective warmth of a sheltering building or wall. When shrubs are frost-burnt, leave the damaged foliage on the shrub to help shelter its inner core then remove this once all danger of frost has past in Spring. Shrubs are usually quick to recover the following season.

Outstanding Camellia sasanqua varieties to try include scores of lovely cultivars:

‘Asakura’ features lovely semi-double almost buttercup-shaped blooms with many yellow stamens that mature to open nearly flat often with pleated petals in pure white sometimes with a pinkish edge. They resemble small Roses.

‘Narumigata’ is very similar in colour but is a beautiful single form.

‘Crimson King’ features nicely formed single deep pink/red blooms with bright yellow stamens on a compact but quick growing shrub.

‘Shikoku Stars’ features many flat, open-faced, small, single white star flowers with yellow centres that sparkle amongst deep green glossy foliage. This variety can grow to 26ft/7.78m and flowers Early Autumn into Mid Winter.

C. Miyagii is very similar to Shikoku Stars but with more irregular single white petals.

C. sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’ is a lovely rose-form with overlapping large, single ruffled white petals and a bright centre of yellow stamens that closely resembles a white Rugosa Rose. The name in Japanese means: ‘Flowers white as snow reflected by the Moon’.

‘Yuletide’ has deep green foliage smothered with holly red single blooms with golden stamens on a compact very dwarf and rounded bush only 1.6 m/5.34ft high. Usually flowers in Winter to Early Spring dependent upon climate.

‘Showa-No-Sakae’ has big, double, soft pink, somewhat fragrant blooms that look like small Roses. This is an Autumn-flowering medium dwarf variety that spreads to make an excellent hedge. So does ‘Rose Mist’ but here the flowers are single like the best grown Rugosa Rose.

‘Little Pearl’ has rose pink, pearl-like buds that open into pure white, semi-double blooms on a compact, tidy bush that makes a great hedge. ‘Rosette’ and ‘Showa Supreme’ are both double free-flowering very similar pink forms.

And ‘Mine-No-Yuki’ (Japanese translation: Snow-on-the-Ridge) also known as ‘White Doves’ is an exquisite double to semi-double peony form with feather petal edges and a light scent in the most beautiful ivory to pure white. The Camellia flowers smother the deep green glossy foliage and its spreading habit and fairly rapid growth makes this variety ideal for the hedging, feature plantings and the shrubbery border.

Whatever size or variety you choose, remember that Autumn is the time to start planting!  So try a ‘Sasanqua’ in your garden this year. Guaranteed your beautiful Camellia sasanqua will soon have you celebrating the beauty of this glorious shrub that starts blooming when everything else begins to die away all in honour of the Autumn sun.

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