A camellia japonica variety in Toowoomba's Queens Park Gardens.
A camellia japonica variety in Toowoomba's Queens Park Gardens. Justin Russell

Camellia the queen of winter

ACROSS the globe, from Tokyo to Cornwall, Alabama to Toowoomba, camellias have earned a reputation as the uncontested queen of winter plants. You'll hear no argument from me.

Despite the fact that they are so common, I find camellias extraordinarily beautiful while in full bloom, and love the way they hog the limelight while other plants settle in for their winter rest.

Native to the lower Himalayas, and the mountainous parts of China, Vietnam, and Japan, camellias in the wild grow as a sub-storey species beneath taller trees, relishing slightly acidic soil, summer rainfall and dappled light.

In other words, they enjoy conditions pretty close to what we can offer them here along the east coast and hinterland. Places such as Toowoomba, Maleny, Tamborine Mountain, and Dorrigo grow some of the best camellias in the world.

Of the two main garden species, cultivars of camellia japonica tend to do the best in these highland climates.

There's a massive range to choose from, but some good doers are Nuccio's Gem, Great Eastern and Emperor of Russia.

Camellia sasanqua cultivars do fine in the mountains as well, but cope much better than japonicas with warmer temperatures and positions in full sun. Try Hiryu, Sat Above Star and Early Pearly.

Winter flowering magnolias (as opposed to the evergreen types that flower in summer) herald from the same parts of Asia as camellias, where the two can often be found growing side by side.

The partnership works equally well in gardens. By the time the camellia show is beginning to wane, magnolias are just starting to get going with their massive, reptilian flowers borne on otherwise naked branches.

Magnolias are a tough, and adaptable plant. They do well from the Atherton Tableland all the way south to Tassie, thriving at higher elevations in rich, volcanic soils.

In warmer, less favourable areas along the coast, they're definitely worth a go, but you'll need to give the trees some afternoon shade and protection from hot northerly winds. Slightly acid soils are preferred, but magnolias will handle soil just over the alkaline side of neutral.

Like camellias, there are lots of different cultivars worth growing. Magnolia x soulangeana is the standard pink variety, but there are better plants around. Some favourites include Vulcan, Magnolia liliiflora, Nigra (great for small gardens and pots), and the supremely elegant yellow flowering cultivar Elizabeth.

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