Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Karma Camellias

Chiswick House conservatoryfrom the Italian garden
View of the restored conservatory from the Italian garden at Chiswick House 

A couple of days ago I had an enjoyable afternoon finding out about the historic collection of Camellia japonica at Chiswick House.

This garden's been on my radar for a while. There's a restored walled kitchen garden and a most intriguing entrance to look out for when you whizz by on the coach to London. The invitation to a special Garden Media Guild study day was the nudge I needed to go and explore.

The collection is housed in an amazing 300 foot long conservatory, restored via a generous Heritage Lottery grant and public appeal in 2010. The original conservatory was designed by Samuel Ware and built in 1813 to house the usual production of fruit and vegetables a notable house of those times demanded.

Side view of Chiswick House conservatory

It was redeveloped in the 1840s to include improvements in glass and ironwork pioneered by Joseph Paxton, and the fruit and veg replaced with camellias. It's believed to be the oldest collection in the western world with some of it dating back to around 1828.

Why the change? Protection of assets is the answer. Chiswick House's owner - the 6th Duke of Devonshire - was an avid plant collector, who assembled 40 of the 50 or so known Camellia japonica varieties of the time, 33 of which are still present in the conservatory. Some of these plants were worth between £2,000 and £3,750 each in today's money.

View along the camellia collection at Chiswick House
A view along the collection

Also, collectors and their gardeners were unsure of the plant's hardiness at that time, so it's no wonder they were placed under glass. Besides, what better way is there to show them off to your visitors, than a nice warm promenade to view their exotic blooms in the depths of winter?

Thus the camellias were installed along the protective conservatory wall, with a wide path alongside for promenading and admiration, and wonderful stone benches on the other side for seasonal displays and decoration.

A member of staff cleans a camellia at Chiswick House
A member of staff washes the leaves with soap and water - from a Pimm's jug!

Whilst conditions are good for the camellias at this time of the year, growing them indoors gave the gardeners all kinds of problems. Firstly conditions in the summer can get far too hot, even with good ventilation and shading. We were told that during the conservatory's restoration, the plants had more exposure to the elements, and the rain and wind perked them up considerably.

Secondly there's a pest problem, particularly with mealy bugs. These were introduced when some imported citrus trees were overwintered alongside the camellias. A programme of picking them off by hand and washing off any resultant sooty mould is currently underway. Once the problem is under control, it's hoped pest management can be via biological treatment.

Finally, there's a double row of camellias planted, so the ones at the back are getting shaded out. The garden team are looking at ways of opening up the canopy at the front whilst minimising the impact on the display.

Camellia japonica 'Middlemist's Red'
A display of perfect Camellia japonica 'Middlemist's Red' blooms alongside flower and bud in situ

One of the notable camellias in the collection is C. Middlemist's Red', one of only two in original collections, the other is in New Zealand. I asked why it's called red when the bloom is actually pink. Apparently the original name was 'rosea' and there was some confusion at the time whether rosea meant red or pink in Latin. When the plant was renamed, it seems they weren't looking at the bloom - it's reassuring I'm not the only one who struggles with Latin names!

Geraldine King in the camellia propagation unit
Estates Manager Geraldine King explains the propagation process

There's a risk of losing such a precious collection, so there's an ongoing programme of propagation to provide duplicates for the garden and elsewhere (including for sale). The old melon house is used as the propagation unit and the photo shows some healthy rooted cuttings. Note the leaves are halved to reduce stress from transpiration during root formation.

Bottom heat of 70 degrees and misting is provided when needed. Geraldine explained that misting times vary depending on the time of the year - every few hours now, rising to every few minutes during the summer. Bottom heat isn't needed during the summer as the melon house easily heats up to that temperature.

There's around a 60% success rate with the cuttings and plants are nurtured for four years until they're ready for sale.

A selection of Camellia japonica blooms
A selection of camellias. In the dishes from left to right and top to bottom we have:
C. 'Parksii', C. 'In... I can't read the label, possibly Imbricata?', C. 'Elegans', C. 'Gray's Invincible' and C. 'Single Red'
The top middle camellia is C. 'Nitida' & middle left C. 'Welbankiana', sadly I didn't make a note of the rest

Research into the conservatory's history and the camellia collection is still ongoing and resembles archaeology sometimes. There are 8 unknown varieties left to identify and much patience required - Geraldine explained even where there are good botanically correct pictures available, they often have to wait for the precise moment when what's in flower actually looks like the painting.

This research also extends outside as part of the collection is there and unlabelled. Some further examples of C. 'Middlemist's Red' have been identified, so it's future in the collection is assured.

Note that the gardens at Chiswick House aren't just for camellias. It's an early example of an English Landscape garden, where William Kent first put some of his design ideas into practise. It's also where a young Joseph Paxton was 'poached' from the [Royal] Horticultural Society's display garden next door by the 6th Duke of Devonshire. The Duke offered him the post of Head Gardener at Chatsworth... and the rest is history.

At the back of the conservatory at Chiswick House
A peek round the back of the conservatory - I love the stacks of terracotta pots

Further Notes

The sixth Camellia Show runs until March 13th 2016. Opening hours are 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Entry to the show is free and last entry is 3.30pm.

Chiswick House Gardens are open daily from 7am to 4.30pm. Free entry.

Kitchen Garden Open Days are 22nd May and 26th June 2016, 11am to 3pm. Free entry.

For more information (including House opening times and prices) see the Chiswick House website.

The International Camellia Society were mentioned a lot during our visit. They've been thoroughly involved with the collection's conservation and research, and their website has lots of information on all things camellia if you're interested.


  1. Linda Penny (by email) says:

    Used to be my local park when I was a child.

    My reply:

    Fantastic, Linda. It's a wonderful place - I bet it looks quite different since the restoration. Well worth a revisit if you're ever passing by.

  2. What an extraordinary collection. And the location looks well worth exploring later in the year.

    1. Hi Janet - I'm looking forward to going back, I just need to combine it with another to make a trip to London worthwhile. I've just spotted that the first kitchen open day is the day before Chelsea Press day... :)

  3. I last went to Chiswick House when my son was still a baby. The kitchen garden hadn't been restored then but I thought the grounds were beautiful. The trip was a sketching day for my degree course. I've long wanted to go and nosey around the kitchen garden - I may be joining you on the first day it opens!

    1. I so nearly wrote about the kitchen garden for the Indy in 2010, but restoration had only just finished and it was unclear how much it would be open to the general public. I had a sneak peek through the gate last week and I'm looking forward to a good old rootle around sometime.


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