Keck's original

James Lerk | Bendigo Weekly | 20-Jul-2017

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Early in June when I began writing about Herbert Keck, I mentioned that he had at least one plant that bore his name. This plant was “Keck’s Special”, a camellia so named because it had been bred by Herbert Keck himself.

The camellia originates from Southern China and has become a popular shrub/tree in gardens throughout the world. 

As far as is known the first camellias were introduced to the colony of New South Wales 30 years after the First Fleet arrived in 1808. 

Many botanical gardens have a collection of these plants with their characteristic dark green leaves which have an almost waxy glossy sheen to them.

Many plants breed true to type, it is through careful selection that variants can be created to evolve newer types, the process of breeding these newer ones can take many years. 

The flowers of the camellia can show an immense variety and the plants are often grown from seed. In the 19th century in particular it became a very popular garden addition in the Americas and Europe.

Older cultivars have been supplanted by more modern varieties. Many new hybrids are bringing new combinations of colour, habit and form. 

With such a huge range of camellias becoming available as cultivars we would tend to think that there could be nothing new under the sun. Every fresh new hybrid increases the possibility of even further variety development.

There was a great enthusiasm for breeding new varieties and a range of cultivars were developed by the Japanese breeders.

The Japanese certainly were not alone, Herbert Keck too was caught up in the enthusiasm to create new varieties. 

As there are no records to indicate how Keck did his camellia development, we are left to guess if it was through growing seed, or from grafting and budding, layering, striking cuttings or arching? 

Mutation through budding occasionally happens, these are frequently referred to as “sports”.

We do not know if there were other camellias developed by Keck apart from the Keck Special illustrated here.

Apparently the Keck Special is living up to its name as there are very few trees of this variety known to exist. 

One of the Keck’s Specials is to be found close to the slightly meandering driveway coming up to his second house, this one of brick which supplanted the earlier weatherboard one. 

Another one of his camellias is at Harcourt and apparently there is an example in the suburb of Sunshine, Melbourne. At one stage there was also an example in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens not far from the Domain Road entrance.

John Hawker a horticulturalist of Heritage Victoria back in 1999 wrote a letter to RM Withers of the Victorian Branch of the Australian and New Zealand Camellia Society indicating the existence of the Keck Special. 

John Hawker was enthused by the knowledge that a fine mature plant of the one that Keck had developed, was still in existence, this stimulated much interest amongst camellia enthusiasts.

RM Withers visited “The Palms” as Keck’s property is now called and was taken by the magnificent Washingtonia robusta palm specimens which partially line the driveway up to the house. 

Also of note was the Phoenix canariensis which is a palm with a much broader leafed canopy than the Washingtonia and has a very different trunk. 

There are other examples of these latter-named attractive palms to be seen at the City of Wyndham near Werribee, they are also considered to be of heritage significance, and as can be deduced by the name originate from the Canary Islands.

The Keck’s Special has a medium sized perfectly shaped formal double flower, white in colour with typical red blotches and stripes. – James Lerk

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