My title this week is slightly fraudulent, for although I do indeed want to say something about camellias, it is really an excuse to write about the Portuguese gardens I have been looking at during the past few days. all public gardens, and all with camellias in flower, as indeed, the camellias in the West Country, not much less than a thousand miles further north, are, as to the earlies, in flower. Which is one more item of evidence that we have the best gardening climate in the world.
Because their delicate flowers can be kept at perfection for much longer by giving these shrubs the protection of glass, the myth that camellias are not hardy has been widely propagated. The fact is they are quite as hardy as the hardy rhododendrons, and incidentally, require the same kind of soil, although I doubt whether they are quite so implacably ‘calicifuge’. I have three specimens, two very small and one medium-sized and growing fast : all are on the north wall of the house, which delays their flowering, so that the flowers when they appear are not exposed to damage by morning sun after night frost. I noticed that even in Portugal persistent rain, although it was warm rain, browns the edges of the petals, especially of the white and pale rose varieties.
One of the best displays of camellias I have ever seen – as of rhododendrons – was at Heligan, in Cornwall, where plants of both these genera have attained tree size. But there is an avenue of tree-sized camellias as far east as Battle Abbey, in Sussex. Not for years, however, have I seen anything like the camellia garden of the Penha [Pena] palace near Sintra, in Portugal : I do not know its extent, but one can walk for a long time by winding, cobbled paths among coppices of camellias some of which are certainly twenty feet tall, and all of which are large, healthy and free-flowering. The flowers are every shade of rose-pink to deep crimson, and one or two of the shrubs flowered almost orange, while many were white. I saw no singles, which is a pity, for I think them even more beautiful than the doubles. In fact, I fancy that a real camellia specialist would criticise this lovely garden on the grounds that, although well kept like all the Portuguese gardens I saw, there have been few recent plantings of new and improved varieties, such as those produced from the Chinese species Camellia saluensis, and C. x williamsi. But this is carping: a garden must be considered as an integral work of art, not a botanical collection, and on those terms the Penha Palace camellia garden, with the sound of running water for ever in one’s ears, the hilly site, the interplantings of great New Zealand tree-ferns, rhododendrons, exotic conifers, araucarias, the splashes of golden yellow from the mimosa and other acacias – many of them large trees, growing beyond the camellia zone – and the way in which resting-places have been contrived at points which give one a view over the garden so that one can see the whole beauty of the camellias in flower, is one of the finest in the world.
In a sense, the Penha Palace garden is an English garden, in so far as it is laid out with consummate art to suggest nature. This is equally true of another remarkable garden, also very rich in camellias, not very far away – I think it was about a fifteen-minute drive, certainly not more – the garden of Monserrat [Monserrate]. But as it was, apparently, made by an Englishman (I had some difficulty in understanding the name as pronounced by my Portuguese driver, but I think it was Sir Herbert Cook), the Bodnant-like layout is not surprising. I use that comparison advisedly, for I was reminded of Bodnant by the extreme hilliness of the site, the maze-like wanderings of innumerable, well kept paths, the ubiquity of water, and the art with which species from the four corners of the earth had been combined to produce a natural landscape of tranquillising beauty which yet could never have happened in nature; that is, without the aid of a skilled artist-gardener.
Since I have compared Bodnant to Monserrat it should be said that Bodnant brings together more, and horticulturally more interesting, species. Monserrat is now Government property, and it is very well kept, but the hand of a master-gardener, breeding new hybrid shrubs and constantly planting the best new varieties, the hand, in short, of a Charles Puddle at Bodnant, is missing. But that having been said, this enormous Portuguese garden – where for an hour and a half after I was due out I still wandered, completely lost – is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Of the shrubs and trees, camellias, a very early cream and mauve rhododendron, acacias, including florists’ mimosa, mahonias in several species, and various prunus and pyrus ornamentals were in flower (January 20). The scent of the mimosa and the sound of water from streams and waterfalls filled the garden as a background to birdsong. Oh, yes, and magnolias, their vast heads of bllom standing out very handsomely against such strange garden-fellows as tree-ferns nine or ten feet tall and colossal agaves, and overtopped only by tall palms and eucalyptus trees.
Camellias, again, are a feature of the municipal gardening in Lisbon itself. Lisbon is a city of outstanding charm in two kinds : on the one hand, the old, very steep, winding and richly coloured streets of the ancient city – not so ancient, really since most of it was destroyed in the great earthquake which features in Voltaire’s Candide – and on the other, magnificent, broad double avenues, with two or four carriageways separated by gardens. In those gardens, those in the Avenida de la Libertad [Avenida da Liberdade], for example, I saw not only camellias in flower, but numerous annuals and perennials as different in kind as stocks and marigolds, and arum lily and Strelitzia regina, the latter with its strange orange and blue flowers like the head of a crane or heron. To the most remarkable of the gardens of Lisbon, however, I propose to devote a whole page – the covered, tropical garden called the ‘Estufa Fria’, at one end of the lovely Edward VII Park, is worth all that. Meanwhile, to return to camellias, in a more brass-tacks spirit for the benefit of gardeners who have never tried planting them, but might like to try now that the myth of their tenderness has been disposed of.
Originally published in the Illustrated London News,
February 20, 1960
Pleasure from Plants
London, Longmans, 1966