As a role model for active retirement it’s hard to beat Eben Gowrie Waterhouse. When the Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Sydney retired in 1945 he turned his blazing intelligence and passion on what had already become a fascination with camellias. He researched the origins, culture and naming of camellias and developed several popular hybrids himself, co-founded the Australian and New Zealand Camellia Research Society, wrote a couple of books, started Camellia Grove Nursery in St Ives thereby colouring the north shore camellia, and developed an international reputation along the way. In his 80s he learned Japanese so he could talk camellias with Japanese colleagues.
Eryldene was E.G Waterhouse’s house and garden and it’s one of the unknown gems of Sydney’s north shore. The architect Hardie Wilson designed the house in Georgian colonial style in the early decades of last century and he and Waterhouse worked together on the garden, following an Arts and Crafts ‘garden room’ model.
There are some fabulous garden buildings: a neat little temple in the front garden, a tennis pavilion around the back that is part Chinese pagoda, part Grecian temple, part shed; a dovecote/tool shed; art deco trellis archway; and Waterhouse’s study where he worked among Chinese and Japanese artworks. The planting follows Waterhouse’s ideas about controlled views and controlled colour, with limited yellow and orange flowers and at least 30 per cent white.
There are 500 camellias in the garden, all of them more restrained in style than the bigger, flashier flowers developed since Waterhouse’s death in 1977. Camellia japonica ‘Fimbriata’ is typical and a Waterhouse favourite. It’s a pure white flower, perfectly sized for a buttonhole, with a serrated edge like a piece of frayed silk. It grows in a pot by a columned terrace at the back of the house, elegant and shapely.
Left to their own devices, camellias grow into big, dark shrubs, with flowers arranged along the sunny top where they can’t be seen. That’s not much use, so the gardeners at Eryldene manage a pruning program which sees trees grown too big given what volunteer garden co-coordinator Helen Wallace calls a ‘slaughter prune’, immediately after flowering. Camellias respond well to the pruning saw or chainsaw, and will even survive being cut off almost at ground level.
The cuts encourage thickets of new vertical growth, and this is where the real work comes in. Leave it alone and it will solidify into a dense head, shorter, but no lovelier than what was there before. Instead, the pruner needs to move in for the second phase, with secateurs instead of saw, and remove all but 4-5 of the new branches, selecting each to give the tree an interesting shape. Keep in mind the adage that camellias should be airy enough to allow a bird to fly through them.
The camellias at Eryldene are all at different stages of this pruning process. Some are overgrown and ready for a cut after this year’s flowering; others were cut just last year, and this year are putting on growth but not flowers; and most show older cuts if you look closely through what is now a framework of beautiful branches with flowers at eye level.
So if you grow camellias, go to Eryldene this winter and make a study tour. And if you don’t grow camellias, go to enjoy one of the great beauties of Sydney’s garden history.
Eryldene is searching for garden volunteers. Experience and skills aren’t necessary, just a willingness to be involved and learn along the way. Call 02 94982271 for details.