Caerhays Castle, near St Austell, is renowned for its rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias; here the estate owner profiles their best
The informal woodland garden at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, was created by J C Williams, who sponsored plant-hunting expeditions to China at the turn of the 19th century.
Today it is home to an ever-expanding National Plant Collection of Magnolia, and its breeding programme has raised many notable Magnolia, Camellia and Rhododendron hybrids – most famously, the x williamsii strain of camellias. We asked estate owner, Charles Williams, to recommend 10 outstanding magnolias and camellias.
Charles Williams' five best magnolias
1. Magnolia ‘Daphne’ (‘Miss Honeybee’ x ‘Gold Crown’)
The quest for the ‘true’ yellow flowered tree magnolia, with flowers appearing before the leaves, has exercised magnolia breeders for at least three decades. The best of the first generation were Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ and M. ‘Butterflies’. In the 1990s M. x brooklynensis ‘Yellow Bird’ and M. ‘Yellow Lantern’ became the pick of the bunch.
However, today, if you can only grow one small to medium sized magnolia in your garden, and like yellow, M. ‘Daphne’ should be your only choice. This superb plant was bred by Philippe de Spoelberch at Arboretum Wespelaar in Belgium. It is a good deep yellow and, although the flowers do usually appear with the emergence of the new leaves, they stand proud and visible on the plant. ‘Daphne’ also has the great merit of a tight, close knit and upright branch structure.
2. Magnolia ‘Caerhays Surprise’
Instead of growing Magnolia stellata or an M. x loebneri selection in a smaller garden, try this superb and equally smaller growing magnolia, bred here at Caerhays. It was a most unusual cross between an early March flowering and small wild-collected form of M. mollicomata and the May flowering small M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’. This hybrid combines all the attributes of its parents in terms of habit, colour and floriferousness.
When grafted it will nearly always flower in two to three years, often while still in a pot. This award-winning magnolia was bred by Philip Tregunna, Head Gardener at Caerhays for more than 40 years, who died recently. A fitting legacy from an exceptional plantsman whom we would all like to emulate by producing something half as good!
3. Magnolia ‘Genie’ (M. x soulangeana x M. liliiflora)
In recent years Vance Hooper’s outstanding New Zealand hybrid has begun to gain well deserved popularity amongst magnolia enthusiasts. Caerhays was fortunate to receive and trial this exceptional plant some 10 years ago before it went on general release.
It is clearly another slower growing variety for the smaller garden with almost black buds opening an exquisite dark burgundy-red. The darkest magnolia we have yet seen; darker even than the much larger growing Magnolia ‘Black Tulip’.
4. Magnolia ‘Star Wars’ (M. campbellii x M. liliiflora)
No other magnolia at Caerhays can claim to flower three times a year when in maturity. There is scarcely a month in the year when this exceptional plant does not have some buds showing colour.
The flowers are pink in spring and remain on the plant for weeks longer than any other hybrid. In summer and autumn the flowers are more sparse, darker in colour, and often partially hidden by the leaves until they fall in autumn, often to reveal a surprise.
This characteristic comes from one of its parents; Magnolia liliiflora which, in maturity, sometimes has a small second flowering in a good wet growing season. ‘Star Wars’ has spreading horizontal branches from a central upright leader. These often produce upright suckers if left, as we now realise they should be, which will then produce the largest flowers.
5. Magnolia ‘Gold Star’ (‘Miss Honeybee’ x M. stellata ‘Rubra’)
This hardy and relatively small growing magnolia produces very frost resistant pale yellow flowers in March or April, usually (here) just before the leaves emerge. Not surprisingly, due to its parentage, the flowers are reminiscent of one of its parents, Magnolia stellata, in shape, size and texture.
Unlike M. stellata this magnolia will form a strong leading stem as well as more drooping lower branches. Its leader can readily be cut back if the plant gets too big which seems to increase its floriferousness. A good plant for the north of the country or Scotland.
Charles Williams' five best camellias
We asked Charles to select five camellias for exceptional floriferousness and overall garden effect from December through to April.
1. Camellia x williamsii ‘Debbie’
This is a well-known hybrid which has stood the test of time, not least because it can have so many different uses. With its compact and very dense, upright habit it makes an exceptional container or tub plant, it can be used as an attractive boundary hedge and it is also easy to arrange in a vase as a cut flower.
‘Debbie’ flowers mid-season with its large pink peony flowers standing proud towards the tips of the individual stems. Certainly a specimen plant to wow the neighbours.
2. Camellia x williamsii ‘Brigadoon’
Another exceptional award-winning camellia which dates from the 1960s, but deservedly remains just as popular today. Its upright columnar habit often means that its leading branches literally bend down with the sheer weight of huge semi-double pink flowers.
This plant responds well to a good haircut if it becomes too large and quickly regrows with even larger flowers on the new shoots. It is normally out before ‘Debbie’ and the two can therefore make a very effective combination if planted side by side.
3. Camellia ‘Cornish Snow’ (C. cuspidata x C. saluenensis)
This hybrid was bred at Caerhays in the 1930s but remains just as sought after and popular today. In a normal season in Cornwall this plant will be in full flower well before Christmas. Despite one of its parents being tenderish the flowers will withstand a degree or two of frost.
Even if they are touched by frost the flowering season is so lengthy and such is the plethora of new buds that a full display soon resumes. A tail end flower or three can still usually be found in April. Hillier Nurseries performed this same cross the other way around to produce the equally attractive light-pink flowered ‘Winton’.
4. Camellia japonica ‘Margaret Davis’
Any camellia with a picotee edge to the petals is unusual. ‘Margaret Davis’ is exceptional in that it is a double flower with a pronounced pink edge. We have found that this plant performs best in full sun rather than shade to ensure that the full edging is more pronounced. The plant has a good upright habit and should be grown close to a path for best effect.
5. Camellia japonica ‘Doctor Burnside’
This is one of the very first camellia japonicas to come into flower, usually in mid-January, and sometimes before Christmas, although flowering persists into April. There are many good dark red camellias but this remains one of the very best, with huge semi-double flowers.
The habit is upright and compact making this a good feature plant in the garden. The first flowers are normally at the very apex of the plant.