We are starting a new section in Concertante as we are forever inspired by the rich lives of our donors. Sharing stories from across all facets of the TSO helps us stay connected and curious. We hope you enjoy hearing more about... you!

We wish to introduce camellia enthusiasts, Joe Neuschwanger and Vicki Cowles. Their combined love of camellias stretches back to the 1960's. This shared love brought them together and it has taken them all over the world chasing the perfect blooms. With over 186 varieties in their garden (that they can name!) we were eager for them to share some growing tips with us all!

Joe, when did you and Vicki fall in love with camellias?

My interest in camellias began in the late 1970s when my then wife and I moved into her parents’ house to look after the house and garden while they retired to Europe for two years. The extensive garden had over one hundred camellias about which I knew nothing. As I did not want to upset my parents-in-law by letting any of their favourite camellias die, I thought I should learn about the care and maintenance of camellias as quickly as possible. The more I learned, the more interested I became.

Vicki’s interest in camellias began in the 1960s when she admired the beauty of the camellias in the garden of her father’s partner. When Vicki moved into her first house in the early 1970s, she planted camellias in the garden.

"The biggest challenge for me is finding the space to grow all the varieties that I would like to grow!"

And we’ve heard it was camellias that brought you together, is this true?

 Vicki and I met through our love of camellias when we both attended the 2009 National Camellia Congress held in Warragul Victoria. Just another reason why camellias are special to us! We’re equally committed as I have just been elected President of the Camellia Society Tasmania Inc. while Vicki is Secretary, Membership Secretary and Public Officer.

Why camellias? What makes them so special?

What makes camellias special is the wide-ranging floral display they provide over the cold winter months when there is not much else in flower. By choosing the appropriate varieties for the Hobart climate, it is possible to have camellias in flower from late March through to the end of December. The flowers come in a wide range of shapes and vary in size from 10mm to 180mm. In summer when camellias are not in flower, their lush green foliage provides a cool refuge from the heat as well as providing a pleasing backdrop for any summer flowering plants.

Do you have three facts about camellias that we may not know? I’ve heard that they can live for over 200 years!

  1. Tea is made from the leaves of certain camellia species. However, the popular ornamental garden varieties make terrible tea, so don’t try this at home!
  2. Contrary to common perception, most camellias are not shrubs but are instead slow growing trees which can grow to a height of more than 10m and live to be more than 300 years old.
  3. Another fact not widely known is that there are some camellias that are fragrant.

Camellia nitidissima

Have you each got a favourite camellia?

Vicki’s favourite camellia is the small flowered but fragrant Minato-no-akebono. My current favourite is the yellow flowered species Camellia nitidissima, because it has just flowered for the first time in our garden.

How many camellias do you both have?

At last count we have 186 named varieties, as well as some promising unnamed seedlings. About half the camellias are in pots with the other half planted in the ground.

You judge camellia shows here in Tasmania, do you judge shows in other states?

I have judged shows in NSW, Victoria and even New Zealand. When judging the flowers (cut examples), we look for size, colour, shape, substance and texture of the petals and condition (freshness and free of marks or blemishes). This can be challenging for judges when adjudicating outside their normal area - as camellia flowers can vary quite markedly from area to area where the growing conditions may be different. The upside to judging in a different state (or country) is that you get to see camellia varieties that you cannot grow yourself. Tasmania has strict quarantine conditions, which means many mainland nurseries do not supply plants into Tasmania.

What is the biggest challenge in growing camellias?

The biggest challenge for me is finding the space to grow all the varieties that I would like to grow!

What advice would you give for anyone wanting to grow camellias?

Always buy your camellia when it is in flower. This is the only way to be sure that you get what you want. Also, unless you can provide some shelter from wind, morning sun and frost, it might be best to avoid white varieties unless you happen to like brown flowers.

Thanks for chatting with us Joe! We hope that the tips you’ve shared inspire others to grow (and love) camellias too.