In Search of Lost Camellias

The peony flowered camellias are opening in our North London garden, and as always they have set me on edge. One becomes emotionally entangled with certain plants, odd species that over the years come to carry strange sentimental heft. Each gardener will have their own unique gremlins, and these camellias are mine. The Daphnes and Witchhazel are also flowering, but these plants, though superior in many ways, never seem to punch me in the psychic gut the way the first overblown camellia buds of spring do.

Being intellectually tied to hybrid camellias for all eternity is a burden to me, because I can’t stand the bloody things. The flowers are far too big and after the sombre refinement of winter they crash like sunlight on hung-over eyes.  Give me snowdrops, give me viburnum – just ease me gently into spring. They also rot in the bud and brown so quickly that before they fully open they resemble a corsage of six-week old salad.

But there are plenty of overbred plants I’m on not keen on; why then the camellia connection? I think it’s all to do with the corpus amygdaloideum, that little pear-drop sized piece of temporal lobe that processes memory and emotional reactions. To put it in Wikipedia speak: “sensory stimuli (read glimpses of camellia) reach the basolateral complexes of the amygdalae, particularly the lateral nuclei, where they form associations with memories of the stimuli.” So when I see this plant I am synapticly hijacked, routed unthinkingly to a group of memories which manifest themselves as the punch in the psychic gut, the sentimental heft.

corpus amygdaloideum

corpus amygdaloideum

So what are these semi-repressed camellia flashbacks that bestride my every spring? Well….

There was a large hybrid camellia in the garden of the house I grew up in. It was hollow in the way that most large shrubs are (leaves on the outside, branches on the inside and all that), but being the only mature shrub in a garden filled with single stemmed trees and mono-dimensional herbaceous material, it seemed the platonic ideal of a den – a properly interactive bit of garden you could get inside. Which is what we did: it became the base of the Dark siblings.

Each year it would flower heavily – no doubt a stress reaction to all the small children arsing about in its innards – and we would collect the many petals of the huge double pink flowers to make potions. One summer we decided to make perfume and so we filled a tub with the petals, mashed them up with a stick and left to mature into eau de wonderful.

After a while it became obvious that even our mother, who always happily endured badly whittled sticks and painted rocks as birthday presents, would never so much as pretend to wear the foul gunk we had created, and so the perfume became a poison.

We added whatever we could from wherever we found it; wasp killer from inside the shed, a dead pigeon from on top of the shed, petrol, grass clipping and lots of wee. The mix was stirred and topped up all summer before we decided to tip it down the drive. The gunk was of the first order of foulness, a stench that will live forever in my nostrils. Who’d have thought that camellia blossom, rotting flesh and urine could smell so bad?

My second camellia memory is from the first garden I ever got paid to work in. My primary task one frigid February morning was to clear up the fallen blooms of a towering peony-flowered camellia that had been hit by sudden frost and persistent rain. I had not brought any gloves with me, and was too green and timid to ask the homeowner for some. I can still feel the sensation of plunging my bare fingers into that brown freezing mess of decaying petals.

Given my growing negative links with the hybrid camellia, one would think that I would choose to stay away from them.  Instead, in an inspired piece of self-sabotage, I chose to bond myself with them forever. When I decided to become a professional jobbing gardener I designed some flyers. They were fine things with a facsimile of a Dürer woodcut, some copy about being a student of the horticultural arts, a photo of me looking charming and non-threatening and another picture: a picture of a hybrid camellia.

The Flyer

The Flyer

I had panicked: I needed a picture of a plant to remind potential clients what gardeners do and had run into the garden and snapped the first one I found. I got 5000 flyers printed. 5000 times I saw that camellia disappear into letterboxes and 5000 times I worried that the occupant would never phone me, that I had made the wrong choice and that I never should have given up my job. 5000 individual moments of horrible self-doubt all auto-associated with that one blancmange pink camellia flower.

So if while we walk in the winter garden you hear me quietly cursing, do not me think me mad.  It’s just those flowers over there – they’re in my brain talking to me of cold slime, rejection and rotting pigeon.

Gosh, well if you read all of that you deserve a reward – here’s a song about falling in love with a cactus.

 

 

The Imperative of the Mundane

My greatest horticultural regret of 2012 was that I spent far too much time gardening, nearly thirteen thousand minutes all told, and so never got round to reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

Regret yes, but resent? No, because somewhere over the course of those 2160 gardening hours, many of which spent in a wet ditch, I learned something. Something no kinky billionaire could ever beat into me – I learned that if you plant Pachysandra in waterlogged soil it goes yellow. Happy New Year everyone!

Not enough? O.K, well since we’re already sharing deeply personal moments of epiphany on the internet we might as well continue. So here, dear reader is the first of my horticultural insights of the year just gone; I shall expect yours in the comments.

I learned….  The Imperative of the Mundane

This year I realised that building a good garden is a lot like hosting a successful party – after laying on nutrients it’s all about filling the place up. It can be tempting to just invite fun-loving, loud-mouth  extroverts. Don’t. The few that do show up will clash horribly in the otherwise empty space, and no good party should end with its three sole guests fist-fighting in the utility room.

Instead what’s needed is a hefty contingent of nice, slightly dull but awfully reliable friends, among who carefully selected bon viveurs can flitter about looking good. Remember, success is all judged on Facebook these days, that filthy anecdote your old mate from uni just told won’t show up in a photo, but fifteen nice smiley girls from the office will.

And so for people as it is for plants. Cram em in, fill every corner! Let the bright and the beautiful do their thing in-front of an ever-dependable green backdrop.  Make this the year of the boring space-filling screening plants, the Aucuba, the Fatsia and the cherry laurel. A garden of chest-thumping Nerines is worthless if they are trying to show-off to a manky chain-link fence and a glimpse of the bypass.

More enlightenment from 2012 to follow shortly.

Extroverts and Aucubas

Extroverts and Aucubas