Barbara Spencer’s Christmas cheer rhododendron.
GARDENING ANY splash of colour in our dour rain and gale-lashed gardens is welcome as the Great Flood continues.
But, while we might have preferred the cold, crisp winters of old, there have at least been some benefits.
The secretary of the residents’ association, of which I am a member, delivered a leaflet to me the other day and met a wasp buzzing about the mailbox and then a bumblebee going about its business, which is crazy for early February.
That is certainly not a benefit to the winged creatures, or, in the case of the wasp, to anything at all, really.
But Barbara Spencer did tell me of one positive of the ludicrously mild conditions —her rhododendron Christmas cheer almost lived up to its name.
Despite its name, Christmas cheer more commonly blooms in February or March and can only be successfully encouraged to blossom for Christmas by it being kept somewhere warm.
That proved to be Barbara’s garden and Christmas cheer started to bud two days before Christmas and has been merrily blooming ever since.
"With all the rotten weather, it gladdens the heart," said Barbara.
Christmas cheer is known for its pale pink blooms and compact, well-behaved form.
Ideally suited to a small garden or a large container, Christmas cheer will reach a height of about 4ft and have a similar spread.
More commonly, camellias, and not rhododendrons, are grown for colour to brighten winter days.
Camellia japonica, or the Japanese rose, has the bonus of beautiful glossy green foliage but, unfortunately, its flowers are short-lived and need constant attention so as not to detract from the beauty of the whole.
Shady conditions are ideal and I well remember an early encounter with a blood-red camellia japonica in my old early teenage stomping ground of Bishop Lovett woods in Ryde when there was still a network of paths within it.
There, like the Victorian plant hunter who probably brought the species to the Island, where it decorated a then magical and man-made collection of gorges and a lake, I came across camellias blooming despite the fact scant light fought its way through the canopy.
It is finding a spot where a little bright sunlight can seek out the shrub which is key to it looking its best — and endeavour too to find a sheltered spot away from cold winds or frost — they do appreciate covering with a horticultural fleece in the worst extremes of weather.
They are especially useful for placing against a permanently shaded wall where most other shrubs would struggle.
If you can, use rainwater — completing the replication of the conditions camellias might experience in their native land. There are many varieties, which spread blooming right through winter.
Camellia japonica Lady Campbell has large, prolific, bright red flowers from February to May.
Camellia Ashton’s Ballethas has fragrant, double-flowered pink blooms from October to December and camellia sugar has delicate pink blooms from November to January.
Guilio Nuccio will reach a height of 14ft and has a spread of half that. It has red petals with a mass of yellow stamens at its centre.
It also comes in variegated form, if you like that.
Among the doubles are the beautiful red coquettii and pink perfection, which has beautiful form.
All the camellias are slow-growing (about 15ins to 20ins per year) and are easy to care for, given the right acid soil.
You should only lightly prune after flowering and, in the spring, gradually increase watering as temperatures rise and day length increases. Keep soil moist in summer and give them the occasional feed.
There are about 80 species of camellias, all from the Far East.
The seeds of camellia oleifera are processed to make expensive oil, which is used in the Far East for cooking as well as being consumed for its cosmetic benefits.
It is said to contain anti-oxidants that help protect the body’s cells from the processes of ageing, strengthens the immune system and keeps skin and hair healthy.
The tea plant is in the same family and there are now several companies selling potted camellia sinensis, which makes a slightly different present.
Sinensis, the small-leaf tea variety, is most suited to growing here because it thrives in the cool, high mountains of China and Japan, unlike the broadleaf variety, camellia assamica, which grows best in the moist, tropical climates found in Northeast India and the Szechuan and Yunnan provinces of China and needs specialised conditions to flourish in this country.
Novelty tea bushes in this country will produce small amounts of green tea — the leaves used fresh — or dried to produce that suited to most English palates.