It’s winter time. Even here in the South winter isn’t known for encouraging plants to bloom. But have you noticed certain shrubs that seem to defy winter by blooming gorgeous flowers in shades of red, pink, white or even combinations of those colors? Well, you’re probably seeing the beautiful flowers of the camellia.
Camellias have been a staple of our Southern gardens for so long (they were brought to Charleston, SC in 1786) that many think of them as being native plants. But they’re actually native to the regions of Asia, with the tea camellia (Camellia sinensis) having been in cultivation for about 3,000 years. How cool is that! There are many camellia species, cultivars, and hybrids, but the most commonly seen in the South are Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua.
There are some differences between those two species. C japonica usually grows larger, has bigger leaves and flowers, has bloom forms of single, semi-double, anemone, peony, formal double rose, or rose form double, and usually bloom January through March. C sasanqua has smaller leaves and flowers, with single or semi-double bloom form, and usually bloom October through December. Some camellias are even fragrant. Some examples of bloom forms are shown below.
Flower forms from top left: single, semi-double, anemone, peony, formal double rose, rose form double (flower opens to show stamens). Photo courtesy of the University of Florida.
What makes camellias so awesome is that they’re so very easy to grow. They’re an evergreen woodland-type shrub or tree, so plant them in the part shade area of your garden. Too much sun can sunburn the leaves and cause them to turn a not very pretty yellowish color. And, no, applying sunscreen won’t help them. They thrive in acidic soil: 5.0 – 6.5 pH, with lots of organic matter. They don’t like being planted too deep, so plant the rootball about 1-2” above the soil line. Higher planting also helps to avoid another thing they don’t like: having soil that’s too wet and not well draining. Once established they are drought tolerant, which is a very good thing.
Please don’t shear camellias. Shearing just ruins the beautiful natural shape of the shrub. The only pruning that might need to be done on them is keeping their interior opened up enough to allow good air circulation and pruning out a wayward branch here and there. Any pruning should be done immediately after blooming. Flower buds will be removed if pruning is done later in the season. No flower buds means no blooms. And that’s just sad.
Different varieties/cultivars grow to different sizes, anywhere from 4′ to 25′ tall and wide. So be sure to pick one that fits the area you’re putting it in. They’re kinda slow growers, but you still don’t want to put one that gets 25′ tall as a foundation plant next to the house. Remember … excessive pruning isn’t good for them. And they’re quite long lived …reportedly there are some in Japan about 500 years old. So, no, don’t plant one in the wrong place thinking it’s no big deal. It’ll be a big deal for many years to come.
See the pic of the camellia with the bare branches sticking out of it? Well, the people who planted it did so in a very creative fashion. Their yard has no shade, so they planted the camellia at the base of the Crape Myrtle tree. The Crape shades the camellia during the hottest part of the year, then when it goes deciduous in the winter the camellia’s beautiful blooms can be seen and appreciated. Pretty neat idea. Go ahead … feel free to steal that idea. I won’t tell.
Ok. So you’re reading all this and are now just dying to have one, but you don’t have a garden area to plant them. Well, no worries, my friend! Camellias do just awesome grown in large containers. Just be sure it’s at least 16” diameter with a deep base.
Camellias grow wonderfully in zones 7 – 9. Some do ok in zone 10, but, again, check the information on the variety you’re interested in. For those of you living on the coast, they aren’t salt tolerant so don’t place them where they’ll get salt spray off the surf. The flowers also do well in arrangements, either cut with a stem or floated in a bowl.
So what are you waiting for? Call me and I’ll be more than happy to find the perfect camellia for your garden situation. Someone 500 years from now will thank you.
Happy digging in the dirt …
Jeanni and Gibbs