In the warmest regions of the United States, camellias are in their glory this time of year. Across the country--in Seattle and Portland, Sacramento and Pasadena, Pensacola, Savannah and Charleston--autumn, winter and spring just wouldn't be the same without the perfection of camellia blossoms. Whether they're grown as specimen plants, as foundation shrubs, in woodland gardens, as hedges or ground covers, in containers or trained as espalier or bonsai, the camellia's abundant, showy flowers--ranging in color from the purest white to the deepest reds--add a striking, gracious element to the landscape. With life spans reckoned in centuries, these handsome evergreen plants are a lasting garden investment.
More and more gardeners--from those in the mildest USDA Plant Hardiness Zones (9 and 10), where tree-sized, 100-year-old camellias are considered treasures, to those in colder areas (zones 6 and 7), where cold-tolerant camellias are making their debut--are discovering the ancient pleasures of growing camellias.
Native to a swath of Asia from Korea and China to Japan, Taiwan and Indochina, the first written record of camellias grown for ornament dates to A.D. 863. Not surprisingly, many of the favorite camellia varieties grown in the United States originated in Japan and are sold under their Japanese names. But along with these old standbys, you'll find varieties named 'General George Patton' and 'Prince Eugene Napoleon', a sign that camellias are a passion America and Europe long ago came to share with Asia.
Today, breeders such as the world-famous Nuccio's Nurseries in Altadena, California, Dr. William Ackerman of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and Dr. Clifford Parks of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill are leaders in breeding camellias for flower form, color and hardiness.
More than 200 Camellia species are found wild in the forests of Asia, where they grow to be large evergreen shrubs or small trees up to 45 feet tall. Most garden camellias are cultivated varieties or hybrids of three species: Camellia japonica, C. sasanqua and C. reticulata.
The classic garden camellia is Camellia japonica and its hybrid offspring, referred to as the japonicas. They are the hardiest of the common ornamental species and have the greatest variation in flower form and color. In favored zones (8 to 10), they have a long bloom season stretching from November to May, but the hardiest varieties can be grown in zone 7 and even in the mildest parts of zone 6, where they bloom in early spring. One older variety, dark red 'Paulette Goddard', has proved to be among the hardiest, surviving -5° F with little damage. Japonicas are typically dense, upright shrubs, but there are also low, spreading varieties. Their flowers, ranging from two inches to seven inches across, are found in all of the forms from single to formal double. Even if they never bloomed, they would still be grown for their exceptionally handsome, glossy dark green leaves as much as four inches long.
Just which is the second most important group of camellias depends on your outlook and location. Fall- and winter-blooming Camellia sasanqua is popular as a landscape shrub, despite the fact that its flowers are the flimsiest of the three groups. The sasanquas--a term that covers C. sasanqua and its close relatives C. hiemalis and C. vernalis--compensate for their easily shattered flowers by producing masses of blooms. They also get the votes of many gardeners in colder areas, for they are nearly as hardy as the japonicas, and their bloom concentrated in October and November precedes the most severe weather. Finer of leaf and generally not as tall as japonicas, they range in habit from densely bushy and upright to low, spreading forms, similar to an azalea. The sasanquas are also more sun tolerant than the japonicas.
The third main group is composed of Camellia reticulata and its hybrids. Distinctly more tender than japonicas and sasanquas, the reticulatas produce fewer flowers on upright, open plants. Awesome reticulata blooms as much as nine inches across are the darlings of the exhibition halls. The open-structured reticulatas are especially well suited for espaliers, and being trained to a wall helps support the enormous blossoms.
The flowers of camellias are classified into six categories, which are further subdivided, depending on the shape or scale of the flower. Closest to the wild ancestors of our garden camellias are single and semi-double flowers with one or more rows of petals, a conspicuous burst of stamens and all the charm of forest wildflowers. In other flower types, most or all of the stamens have been converted through breeding to petals or similar, smaller structures called petaloids. These double-flowered varieties include most of the old favorites. Highly symmetrical formal doubles feature many rows of neatly overlapping petals and never show stamens. Anemone-form flowers have large outer petals lying more or less flat and a pretty cluster of mixed petaloids and stamens in the center. Peony forms may be "loose" or "full", while rose-form doubles have rows of overlapping petals that open to let stamens peek out.
Perhaps the secret of the camellia's appeal is how the plants relate to our homes. Rather than standing out in full sun like a bed of roses, camellias love dappled shade and appreciate the shelter of our walls and trees, repaying our care with abundant flowers and a handsome evergreen habit. An entryway planting of 'Yuletide' festooned with scarlet flowers to greet visitors, or a graceful group of 'Mine-No-Yuki' (or 'White Doves') under a bay window reflect the combination of charm and dependability that underlies the camellia's popularity.
Above all, camellias are outstanding specimen plants that bear scrutiny in all seasons and from all angles. Whether in the ground, in containers or trained as espaliers, camellias are handsome enough even out of bloom to fill the role of permanent focal point in the garden.
In the prime camellia territory of the Pacific Coast and the mildest parts of the Southeast, camellias are among the most popular shrubs for foundation plantings, especially along north- and east-facing walls. In colder areas, the desiccating effects of the morning sun in winter make north and west exposures a safer choice. Plant several specimens of a single upright variety to give a pleasing uniform foliage quality.
Woodland gardens most closely resemble the native habitats of camellias. The plants appreciate the shade and protection from wind afforded by large trees, and the acidic, water-conserving mulch of oak leaves and pine needles is just to their liking. Camellias of upright form are especially handsome in contrast to spreading, rounded forms of azaleas and rhododendrons.
Camellias also perform well as hedge and ground cover plants. With their dense evergreen foliage and moderate growth rate, japonicas and sasanquas have always been popular subjects for informally pruned and formal clipped hedges. The fine texture of 'Yuletide' and other smaller-leaved sasanquas make them especially suitable. Many members of the sasanqua group are also superior knee-high ground cover plants, including some that take full sun, such as 'Showa Supreme' and 'Tanya'.
Finally, camellias are unexcelled container plants. They don't mind being crowded for a few years; in fact, a slow up-potting schedule suits them best. Wood tubs and boxes are especially good, as they don't dry out as fast as clay pots. Once a camellia has grown into the largest container that is practical, it can remain there permanently if given an occasional root pruning. Slow-growing varieties such as 'Dorothy James' or 'Commander Mulroy' do particularly well showcased in containers, and container cu is highly recommended for colder areas, where camellias can be grown in greenhouses. Camellias are premiere plants for dwarfing in the bonsai style, as attested by centuries-old specimens in Asia.
Years ago a map of North American camellia country would have shown a thin, discontinuous crescent stretching from Vancouver, Canada, down the Pacific Coast, then skipping the desert Southwest and hopping over to include the Old South all the way to southern Virginia. That area, comprising zones 8 and above, remains the heartland where camellias thrive as basic landscape shrubs.
Thanks to research on the hardiness of old varieties and the development of new hybrids, however, the crescent has waxed to include zone 7 and even zone 6. At least a dozen traditional japonicavarieties are being grown successfully in the milder parts of zone 7, such as Cape Cod, Long Island and the Delmarva Peninsula.
Dr. William Ackerman of the U.S. National Arboretum has developed camellias that are hardy but that also bloom in fall, thus producing flowers before the hardships of winter. Hardy to zone 6, these include 'Winter's Beauty', 'Winter's Interlude', 'Winter's Star' and 'Winter's Waterlily'.
Dr. Clifford Parks has developed new hybrids that also survive subzero temperatures. Of particular note are the April Series--including 'Apri Rose'--and 'Mason Farm' and 'Spring Promise'. All are hardy to the warmest parts of zone 6. 'Adeyaka' and 'William Lanier Hunt' are hardy to zone 7. Where climate precludes outdoor planting (zone 6 and colder), you can grow camellias of any kind in a container.
Keep the container outdoors in summer and move it indoors to a cool greenhouse or unheated room for winter. Though they will survive in heated living areas for a few days at a time, camellias are not houseplants: They need high humidity, bright winter light and night temperatures below 45° F but above 30° F. Allow soil to dry slightly between waterings, and avoid both alkaline and softened water.
Growing these forest-dwelling shrubs requires an understanding of their native habitat. In the high-rainfall Asian forests where they grow wild, young camellias develop in the filtered shade of well-drained slopes on a thick carpet of organic litter in neutral to acid soil. Mature camellias 40 or more feet tall form part of the forest canopy. Translating this to our gardens means young camellias want protection from wind and sun, excellent drainage, good mulching, acid soil and consistent moisture. As plants mature, they can tolerate more sun and longer dry periods.
In mild areas, plant camellias anytime during their bloom period from fall through spring in the shade of trees or on north or east exposures. Avoid competing roots and fungus problems by planting camellias several feet away from the trunks of mature trees. Where summers are very hot, take care that your camellia is protected from scorching midday and afternoon sun. In cold areas, plant in the spring as soon as soil can be worked, choosing a spot protected from wind and winter sun.
Like azaleas and rhododendrons, camellias thrive in well-aerated acid soil, so be sure to use plenty of peat moss, ground fir bark, well-rotted manure or home compost when planting. Good drainage is an absolute must. In mild areas, you can help prevent water from standing around camellias by planting them high, leaving the rootball 2 to 3 inches above the soil surface, then applying a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch. In colder areas, such treatment would expose roots to frost, so plant flush with the ground and be sure to mulch. Young plants in cold areas can be protected the first few winters with a microfoam blanket stretched on a framework of stakes. If good drainage is unobtainable, you will have far better results growing camellias in containers.
The most popular camellia of all has small, cr white flowers and is planted by the thousands of acres. Botanically speaking, it's Camellia sinensis, or in plain English, green tea. Hardy to the milder portions of zone 6, the fine texture, evergreen habit and masses of flowers in fall make C. sinensis a valuable garden shrub.
It takes five pounds of fresh tea leaves to make a pound of processed tea leaves. If you would rather see someone else grow tea, you can observe the only commercial tea production in the United States at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, just off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, at 6617 Maybank Highway. During the May to October harvest season, 45-minute tours of the plantation are provided the first Saturday of each month. Call (800) 443-5987 for more information.
Kevin Connelly grows camellias, wildflowers, and native plants around his home in Arcadia, California.
Photography by Claire Curran
Article published on June 23, 2008.