Garden visits have been sparse this year, but being outdoors in the warm sunshine with a fresh breeze is probably one of the safer pursuits these days, and as we approach the more confining months of winter it might be best to stretch the legs one more time before the season of long nights settles in. I had heard that hardy, autumn blooming camellias were a thing down in the suburbs of Philly, so when a stretch of beautiful autumn weather presented itself I knew I needed to check it out. An offer had been made last spring and my fingers were crossed that offer still stood. It did, and the offer was just as gracious as before and a few days later I was heading South to one of the most highly regarded private gardens of the Philadelphia area.
Cressons have been tending the land of Hedgleigh Spring since before Charles’ grandfather built the house over 100 years ago. I’m going to guess the mountain of ‘dwarf’ cutleaf maple alongside the house probably dates just as far back.
November is not typically a month reserved for garden visits, but this beautifully orchestrated collector’s garden has something for every month of the year. While other gardens are down to a pot of mums alongside the front door, Hedgleigh Spring offers decades worth of collecting, growing and hybridizing fall(and spring) blooming camellias, and melding them into a landscape already full of exceptional autumn interest. Beautiful weather helped as well. Blue skies, balmy temperatures and dozens of fall blooming camellias at their peak made for an excellent garden tour.
It’s a good sign when mature needle palms and witch hazels grace the streetside plantings.
We started out front of course, and for as hard as I tried (and I really thought I was doing great) I missed the names of most of what I was really interested in. My apologies, but if you really need more info I’m sure I can find it out for you. One of the highlights of the tour was the extensive background information for each plant, each cross, the typical growth habit, care, pruning hints… and names… everything had a name, but you can blame this visitor for losing it.
‘Winter’s Rose’. A beautiful flower on a dwarf plant, but I do remember Charles warning me that it’s usually too late a bloomer to put on a good show, and all those unopened buds will probably freeze off during the winter.
I did make a special effort to keep my ears open for anything which might possibly have the magical combination of early fall bloom and enough hardiness to possibly offer a show in my much colder garden. It’s a foolish idea since decades later I can still remember how all the “hardy” camellias I saw planted around a much warmer Long Island faded away, but…. whatever. Charles put it in a much more promising tone. He said it would be interesting to see someone “trialing” these crosses in a much colder climate. I’ll keep that in mind for when a brutal winter comes along and crushes my delusions with a zone 6a reality.
An un-named tall, fast growing C. oleifera x C. sasanqua ‘Cleopatra’ cross with plenty of buds and a long bloom season that starts early enough to beat the cold.
Although I saw many which I’d like to try I was reminded that most fall bloomers are not bud hardy and once winter sets in, any unopened buds will be lost. For my zone, a well thought out selection would be something not only hardy, but a plant which starts blooming early, has plenty of buds, and doesn’t show damage too strongly even if it does get hit with a few early freezes.
A beautiful large-flowered semi double which was just too nice to leave out. It’s one of Charles’ un-named hybrids, a ‘Snowflurry’ x ‘Moon Festival’ cross, which has been hardy, but perhaps not unique enough to name? It looked perfect for our visit, but Charles warned that it would be a less-promising choice since the blooms are usually later.
Some siting ideas which were shared involved avoiding the sunny warm spot which you would think is a good idea for borderline hardy plants. I’m told full winter sun on cold, frozen leaves will dehydrate and kill. Better to site in a winter shaded or afternoon sunny spot.
The warm nook of a Southern exposure can keep other borderline hardy plants quite happy. Flowering gingers in need of division, loropetalum, Fatsia, and plenty of southern bulbs. Plus orange mums, ‘Dixter Orange’ if you’re curious.
Or just hope for the best. Creeping fig is something I’ve only seen on inside walls, and never imagined it would survive for decades on the outside, but there it was.
Creeping fig (Ficus pumila ‘minima’) alongside ‘Buttercup’ english ivy. The fig gets frozen back each winter which is probably a good thing, but each summer it’s back.
Obviously not everything can be hardy so it was no surprise there were plenty of potted treasures which come in each winter. One of them, a zone 8 ‘Moon Festival’ camellia, was just opening its 6 inch crepe textured blooms right on time for our visit. The cool thing about this one is that years back it had been crossed with a hardier plant and only now two of the seedlings of the cross were showing their first flowers. One in particular held on to the large form and wrinkled texture, so of course it will be something interesting to watch as it grows and develops.
Camellia ‘Moon Festival’ in a pot on the back patio.
And there were more. A particular standout was ‘Autumn Spirit’ with a deep pink color and a fairly formal double form. Out in the open in full bloom with the blue skies and changing foliage colors around it, it was quite the show. This might be one I risk up here in the tundra, it would be worth it.
Camellia ‘Autumn Spirit’
Hardiness isn’t the only hurdle. Bad gardening also has to be dealt with, and when I saw this beautiful bank of ‘Snow Flurry’ I had to confess I’d killed mine this spring when we flipped into drought and I flipped into late spring apathy and didn’t water in time. I may need to try again.
More like a whiteout, camellia ‘Snow Flurry’ was at its peak, covered in flowers from top to bottom and ringed in a puddle of spent petals.
Camellia ‘Snow Flurry’ against the autumn sky.
Before I go on too long, I want to point out again that there was so much more to see than just dozens and dozens of camellias. There were beautifully mature oak and bald cypress trees, banks of azaleas and hollies, southern and deciduous magnolias, perennial borders, fern gardens, woodland plantings, a vegetable and berry garden, rock garden, pond, and lots of bulbs. Over the years Charles has made a name for himself in the bulb world and often gives talks and leads classes at Longwood and other locales in the area.
Of course fall blooming (Galanthus regiae-olgae) would catch my eye, but also notice the self sown camellia seedling and the pink flowering form of tea (Camellia sinensis) just off to the right.
My fingers are crossed that someday I can make it back for the spring bulbs, but on this visit it was all about a garden that looks good in its fall colors.
Mature trees surround the property, and of course I loved the hardy palms (Sabal minor ‘McCurtain).
Besides all the plants, the nerd in me was particularly excited to finally see the signature curved picket fence (91 ft long in case you’re wondering) which backs a similarly curved perennial border, which blends in to mirrored rose beds on each side, and which finishes up with raised borders banked with stone (shown above with the palms). For as much a collection of plants this garden is, it’s still focused on landscape design and plant combinations, with each one growing in a spot that shows it off well.
With foliage slightly singed by frost, Canna x ehemanii adds hot pink and tropical foliage to a border heavy on the warm colors of salvia and other bold summer plantings.
Actually things showed off well throughout the garden.
Chrysanthemum ‘Gethsemane Moonlight’
Sorry but I do have to mention one more camellia. Charles donates dozens and dozens of seed varieties each year to (among other places) the Hardy Plant Society, Mid Atlantic group seed exchange. Over the years I’ve tried quite a few, and as we wandered the gardens it was fun to see the parents of many of my plants. Camellia ‘Survivor’ was named after surviving a cold snap which many others did not, and it’s one of the parents of seedlings here in my own garden. Hopefully the now 18 inch seedling growing here will someday also show off those hardy genes, and give this gardener a fall flower or two.
Camellia ‘Survivor’. Charles actually encouraged me to reach up into the small tree and take a few ripe seed pods. I tried to act like it was no big deal and even shared a few with the others.
And then the tour started to wrap up. We heard car doors slamming as another group arrived, but fortunately there were still a few minutes for one last dash out back to the creek which runs through the back end of the property. Yes, there’s even a creek… and a small wet meadow area…
Cypress knees holding one bank while recycled concrete from a sidewalk redo hems in the other side. I was surprised to hear that this innocently clear and calm creek can burst up over its banks by several feet in a good storm.
So that was it. We had already stayed way too long but even on the way back to our cars there were things we had somehow missed the first time through.
There were hundreds of Crocus speciosus in the front yard, but a surprise bunch in back caught the light perfectly. I have to try this one again, mine were never this nice.
It was a great morning and besides seeing a lot, I also learned quite a bit. Thanks again to Charles for all the time he spent with us, if we were pests in any way he never let on, and hopefully when he mentioned how the meadow along the creek was just filled with early bloomers he meant that we should see it some day!