About 20 years ago I visited the gardens of Japan to admire their subtle, concealed beauty, and perhaps to understand them a little better. We all know they are enigmatic, controlled, but they seemed to connect on a very deep level.
It was December when I first visited some of the major Japanese gardens. But far from being sterile and lifeless, their ‘emptiness’ was highlighted by one or two strategically placed Camellia sasanqua.
In Japan, traditionally native plants are grown singly to celebrate a season, and to focus the visitor’s mind on their especial beauty. (I can remember vividly queuing with my friends and colleagues to take a picture of a single blue gentian!) Less is certainly more. But on that cold, dry December day the pink camellia shone in the mid-winter sunshine. Its crisp, single flowers were perfect. One or two petals lay artfully on the ground.
It reminded me of a story of one very great, pioneering tea-master, Sen no Rikyu, who created and popularised the tea ceremony in Japan. He was training his son in the ways of garden-making and asked him to sweep away the fallen petals of a camellia. The son duly obeyed to the best of his ability, but his father was not impressed. He ordered the boy to clear more petals. Again, he obeyed. Again, Father was unimpressed. Once more, the boy was told to finish the job. “There, father. There are no more fallen petals now.” Rikyu then held the camellia by its main stem, and gave it a firm shake. Petals cascaded to the ground. “There, boy. That touch of naturalness is what we’re after”. You can imagine the boy’s reaction.
Since my encounter with these very special, winter-flowering camellias, I have found quite a few named varieties and bought them. I have C. sasanqua ‘Plantation Pink’, now in a 20-litre pot of ericaceous compost outside my lobby window, sheltered from the north and east. And last year I bought a C. sasanqua ‘Yuletide Red’ that was covered in single, Christmas-red flowers with a boss of bright yellow stamens.
They spend the winter on the north side of the house, where the walls protect them from the worst of the weather. They are not quite so hardy in the UK. And they face west: a trick I learned when we gardened in the acid soils of Kent. If the flowers get frosted, it is essential to let them melt and warm up again as slowly as possible. They are pruned to shape only during the six weeks following flowering. This is the only time of year when camellias, and rhododendrons, make ‘extension growth’. At any other time the flower-buds will already be forming.
So once again, this Christmas, I am hoping that the waxen flowers of these camellias will lend a glow and a warmth to the cold air. I plan to pick just one or two buds and bring them in for the festive table.