Camellia Variegation

by Ray Bond –
Part 1: Genetic VariegationhermeOne of the factors that makes camellias so eye-catching is the variegation that the plants show in their blooms. Other families and species of plants can display signs of variegation, but this will be about camellias. You can probably think of other kinds of plants with variegation after reading this article. There are two basic reasons for the camellia variegation phenomena.Genetic variegation is a variegation that is in the genes of the camellia plant. It has been said that “Camellias are sporting fools” inasmuch as they have a high probability to mutate.* Sometimes it is apparent in a camellia plant and sometimes it may not be seen until one day, the bloom has a streak of red or white, or the entire bloom will bloom differently from the rest of the plant. This may be just a bloom or two, an entire limb, or the entire plant all at once. Or, the bloom may be consistently streaked with white or red, from the center of the bloom to the edge, year to year. A difference may appear as a short stripe or elongated fleck of color in the petals apparently beginning at the center and extending toward the edge of the petal.Another variation of genetic variegation is a picotee around the edge of the petals, or a gradual change of color from the center of the bloom to the outer edge. Very often, genetic variegation is a characteristic of the bloom that is part of the official description of the bloom. Sometimes when the variegation appears on a limb we tag it for future reference and to see if it holds from year to year. Sometimes, it may not ever appear again. When it does hold and if it we consider it to have potential, we will air layer or graft from the limb. If, in subsequent years the mutation continues to appear and displays superior form, color and general appearance, we propagate it. This process can consume as long as ten years.

Genetic streak variegation is an indication that the plant is a mutation (sport) that may not have displayed itself until the streak of color becomes apparent, if it becomes apparent. Or, it indicates that the plant (bloom) may have the tendency to sport that has not yet been demonstrated. But that stripe is an indicator that the plant may mutate, sometime, somewhere, sooner or later. If the potential to sport is in a camellia plant, sometimes a shock to the plant can trigger it. Never take this stripe information as gospel; when it appears, it is an indicator. Camellias can mutate with no warning at all.

Genetic variegation does not affect the plant except that the mutant plant can have a different growth habit from the original. Leaf size and shape may differ, but 80% of the time, it does not.

Good examples of genetic variegation are C. japonica ‘Lady Vansittart’, Betty Sheffield’, ‘Carter’s Sunburst’, ‘Herme’, ‘White-by-the-Gate’, and the winter-hardy C. hybrid, ‘Winter’s Star. I chose these particular camellia cultivars because they demonstrate the various genetic variegations to a “T.”

A. ‘White-by-the-Gate’ (C. japonica) is a very beautiful, medium sized, formal double, white bloom. Very occasionally, the bloom will display a narrow stripe of bright red from the center of the bloom to the outer edge. A plant may bloom perfectly white for many years, then one year, a bloom or several blooms may display a red stripe. This stripe may appear again for several years and may be seen on that plant for several years, or it may not be seen again. To my knowledge to this time, this flower has not sported any more than displaying the red stripe.

B. ‘Carters Sunburst’ (C. japonica) is a white to blush pink flower that has a multiplicity of stripes or stripe-like flecks of red radiating from the center of the bloom toward the outer edge. One sport of this bloom is pure white, but it did not appear until after the original seedling had been propagated for many years. This pure white camellia has held and has been named and registered as ‘Chow’s Han Ling’. There are several other sports of ‘Carter’s Sunburst’.

C. ‘Betty Sheffield’ (C. japonica) is one of the most active sporting plants in the camellia world. The original ‘Betty Sheffield’ was white, with red streaks from the center to the outer edge. To date, there is no official count as to how many times she has sported without warning. Several years ago, I saw one large bush with seventeen different blooms on it. Bloom variations from this camellia range from the original white with red streaks to red streaked with white, to white with red edged petals (‘Betty Sheffield Supreme’, that is a real favorite,) to pink, on and on. Betty presents a real predicament: in many cases, with ‘Betty Sheffield Supreme’, being very guilty, the plant may revert to another sport or to the original with no prior warning. This reversion may become permanent or may go back to the original had after a year or five or ten. Or, it might bounce from one mutant version to another.

‘Betty’ is a very unstable, sporting girl and probably should be considered untrustworthy. But, she is beautiful and we all have hope.

D. ‘Lady Vansittart’ (C. Japonica) is similar to ‘Betty Sheffield’, but she is not nearly as active. To date, she has officially sported only twice. ‘Lady Vansittart’ is a medium size, semidouble, basically white flower with red stripes of varying widths. Some petals may be all to half red and the plant can change year to year in a manner similar to, but not as drastically as ‘Betty Sheffield’. One mutant has been named ‘Yours Truly; and the other ‘Lady Vansittart Red’. ‘Yours Truly’ is pink, streaked with red and bordered with white. ‘Lady Vansittart Red’ is a deep pink to red version of ‘Lady Vansittart’ that may exhibit a white or deeper pink streak.

E. ‘Herme’ (C. Japonica, a.k.a. ‘Jordan’s Pride) is a medium, semidouble flower, somewhat similar to ‘Yours Truly’ but a little bit smaller. It has pink petals, striped deeper pink, that have an irregular white edge. There are two sports of ‘Herme’, ‘Herme Pink’ and ‘Herme White’. You guessed it: ‘Herme White’ is white with a few deep pink stripes (usually) and “Herme Pink’ is rose pink with a few white or darker red stripes (usually).

F. ‘Winter’s Star’ (C. hybrid, winter-hardy to -10°F) is a fast growing, tall camellia,
with a growth pattern like a tall Christmas tree. It has a medium sized, single bloom that is lavender pink. ‘Winter’s Star’ is turning into another ‘Betty Sheffield’ with the exception that it is a C. hybrid. It has no C. japonica genes in it.

The first mutant we discovered was a shorter, bushy version of ‘Winter’s Star’ with a slower growing habit. We named it ‘Winter’s Star II’. The bloom and leaves are exactly the same as ‘Winter’s Star’.

Then appeared a ‘Winter’s Star’ sport that had the same shaped bloom and leaf, but the growth pattern is a cross between ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Star II. The bloom is a light blush pink with darker pink flecks. We registered it as ‘Winter’s Star Light’.

F. Next appeared a mutant of ‘Winter’s Star’ that has a hot pink bloom. Everything else is similar to ‘Winter’s Star Light’. Then appeared a pure white version of ‘Winter’s Star’ having a growth pattern similar to ‘Winter’s Star II’. Both of these have held for five or six years and we are considering registering them in another year, if they continue to hold. We have had one or two more sports of ‘Winter’s Star’ but, to date, they have not held or reappeared.

Camellias are genetically unstable plants, so you can expect surprises. All camellia species can and will mutate. Rarely will genetic variegation show in camellia leaves and then only in the shape and size of the leaf. We have quality sports of camellias not named above that have held and are looking very good. They will probably be registered in the near future.

Part 2: Virus Variegation

KATIE varOne of the things that, in the opinion of most, makes camellias so attractive is the variegation that the plants show in their blooms. We have written about genetic variegation; variegation caused by virus will be discussed in this article.

Virus variegation is caused by one or several viruses that infect camellia plants. These viruses cause a disease in the plant. These virus diseases may cause some stunting of the growth of the plant. If the bloom is colored, the color may be a bit faded, depending upon the strength of the virus and strain of the infection. The plant may not be quite as hardy as compared to the same cultivar without the viral infection. Growth rate may be slower. Propagation can be slowed or altered. One C. japonica, ‘Feathery Touch’ (white bloom) is so heavily infected with variegation that the plant is stunted and any actual color is probably bleached away.

On the plus side, the effect of virus variegation can enhance the bloom. Some of the most beautiful and prized blooms are variegated. The best example of this is C. japonica ‘Ville de Nantes’, particularly when its bloom is heavily variegated with white moiré. This bloom is a consistent show winner.

The most obvious manifestations of viral variegation manifests are five:

1. Small white spots (1/4” diameter) on darker colors;
2. Larger white blotches on darker colors
3. A white ripple pattern known as moiré.
4. Leaves of infected plants may be variegated with cream colored areas.
5. Any and/or all Combinations of 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Viral infection is not endemic to the plant as is genetic variegation; it is spread mechanically. It cannot be transferred through the seeds. Spreading is accomplished by grafting an uninfected scion to infected root stock or vise-versa. It can take place when the roots from an infected plant cross those of an uninfected plant and the roots grow together, thereby transferring of the virus from one plant to the other. In the wild, I have seen a limb of an uninfected plant cross a limb of an infected one. The two limbs grew together and the “clean” plant became infected with the same virus.

Rarely, is virus variegation a characteristic of the bloom that is part of the official description of the bloom. A good example of an exception is (C, japonica) ‘Josie Bond’, a medium size, deep pink formal double bloom with heavy white blotch virus variegation. This plant developed from a seedling that was taken from a location near a virus variegated plant. Obviously, the roots of the two plants had crossed. The original seedling would probably have exhibited a deeper pink to red bloom. Another example of this exception is ‘Beauty of Holland’ which has small spot virus variegation on ‘Herme Pink’, a genetic variation of ‘Herme’.

Rarely, the effect of virus on the plant will trigger a genetic variegation of the plant. The plant may be under another stress or the virus effect may be strong. Also, there may be the probability that the camellia was going to sport, anyway.

Camellias infected by virus can exhibit a great number of variegation patterns. Add to that the effects of genetic variegation, so theoretically, an infinite number of great possibilities exist. Aren’t camellias beautiful?!

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