In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Camellia japonica has the simple elegance of a rose and provides color through the dark days of winter.
Camellia -- The Queen of Flowers
I have a soft spot in my heart for camellias. They don't make good cut flowers, they are a bit fussy regarding soil, planting, and watering, and they provide nothing but a dark green background when everything else in your garden is blooming it's brains out. However, come winter, camellias take center stage, especially if you plant three varieties, which should carry a color palette from early October through April.
History and Special Needs
Camellias are native to the mountains of Asia and are perfectly suited to our climate. They require fast draining, rich soil, acid fertilizer, and protection from direct sunlight and drying winds.
It's best to purchase camellias when they are in bloom to ensure the color choice. Plant camellias along the north or east side of your house or under a canopy of mature trees. When planting, make sure the top one-inch of the root ball is standing above the surface of the soil. Camellias require perfect drainage, so a sandy soil amended with organic compost is ideal. They also do very well when planted in containers.
C. sansanqua is the first species to come into flower in the early fall and these plants will tolerate more sun that the other species. They are usually low growing and ideal for borders. In cooler locations along the coast, they can be planted in full sun. The showy flowers don't last long on the plant, but they bloom in profusion and make up in quantity what they lack in quality.
The next species to bloom, usually around the beginning of November, is C. japonica. This is the most common type of camellia and the one that comes to mind when most people think of a camellia. The flowers are waxy and delicately formed, somewhat resembling a rose in shape. These shrubs can grow quite large and will live for a very long time, sometimes growing into small trees. The foliage is a glossy deep green and although the flowers won't last in an arrangement, the leaves are stiff and leathery and will last a long time after cutting. Chocolatiers often paint melted chocolate onto a clean C. japonica leaf, then carefully peel off the chocolate leaf to use in food decoration.
C. reticulata carries the largest flowers, some the size of dinner plates, and is the last species to come into bloom, usually in late January. C. reticulata requires the longer daylight hours and milder temperatures to bloom. The plants themselves are often gangly and not particularly attractive, but what they lack in form, they more than make up for in flower size. C. reticulata is best planted under an oak canopy with companion plants of a similar size to disguise the lanky shape. The individual petals are often frilled, fluted, or curled.
All camellias, with the exception of the reticulatas, benefit from and end-of-season pruning to open the interior of the plants to allow for air circulation and prevent fungus disease. They will survive a fairly hard pruning, so don't be shy.
The best way to display camellia blossoms indoors is to float them in shallow bowls of water. Even then, they will only last a day or two.
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