03/25/2019
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By Bob Byers

As the weather gets cold and dreary, we tend to put away the gardening boots in favor of an easy chair and a good book (or plant catalog). But wait, there’s still something beautiful going on in the garden. Or there should be: camellias. The envy of many gardeners from colder climes, these Southern icons clothe themselves in blooms during warm spells all winter. And in the camellia’s traditional home in the Coastal South, with a little planning you can enjoy these spectacular blooms almost daily for months.

The rest of the year, masses of glossy, dark, evergreen leaves make the perfect backdrop for other plantings of shrubs, perennials or annuals. But as September rolls around, you’ll see the first blooms, and by late October, the fall camellia season is in full swing. Sasanqua camellias decorate fall and early winter with informal 3-4 inch blooms. While sasanquas are beautiful landscape shrubs covered with color, many folks prefer a little more traditional flower form. They find the double, often rose-form, blooms of Camellia hiemalis hybrids are a perfect fit for their style. My personal favorite is ‘Chansonette’, an attractive light rose with a beautifully symmetrical spiral of petals forming each bloom.

By holiday time, early Japanese camellia varieties are showing color. The first in the gardens’ collection is clear pink ‘Debutante’, which is usually loaded with peony-form flowers by Christmas. Formal double ‘Pearl Maxwell’ and others soon follow in quick succession. As the weather gets colder in January and early February, the buds on camellias will stop opening, but we always have early spring bloomers such as ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ (white, formal double, flushing to pink) and ‘Magnoliiflora’ [‘Hagoromo’] (pale pink, semi-double) offering plentiful fresh flowers for decorating our Flower and Garden Show in late February.

By the first or second week of March, you’re in prime time! One variety after another will be covering first the plant, then the ground, with thousands of colorful petals. Favorites for me this time of year are ‘Rose Parade’ (rose red, rose form), ‘Satandonz’ (dark red, single), ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ (white, formal double) and ‘Kramer’s Supreme’ (a lightly fragrant red peony form).

Camellias thrive on benign neglect once established. One critically important element is a well-draining, acid soil. If you have alkaline soils, try a camellia or two as containerized accent plants. All types prefer part shade with some morning sun or high shade (bright light, but no direct sun – such as under mature pines) to bloom best. Camellias actually tolerate heavy shade but won’t bloom as well in low light. With lots of water, they’ll even grow in full sun. However, in the South you can expect yellowing, discolored leaves on plants receiving more than three to four hours of sunlight. Such plants are often so stressed they’re not an asset, so be sure your plants get shade during the heat of the day.

Most camellias are hardy through USDA Zone 7 but may need a sheltered position in Zone 7a. Plant on the east or north side of the house, where they’re protected from midday and afternoon sun that heats bark and leaves before sudden temperature drops after dark, causing bark splitting. Live in a colder part of the South? Look for the U.S. National Arboretum’s Camellia oleifera hybrids such as ‘Frost Princess’ and ‘Snow Flurry’, bred by crossing the very hardy Korean species with garden camellias for better cold tolerance. Many are considered hardy to Zone 5b.

Like azaleas, camellias are not heavy feeders. An acid-based fertilizer including nitrogen and potassium applied according to directions once or twice after bloom keeps them growing and flowering well. Camellias tolerate dry conditions, but aren’t really going to thrive unless provided supplemental water (about 1 inch a week) during periods without rain. And don’t skimp on space: Though slow growing, mature camellias can be as large as small trees.

The single most important cultural practice for camellias is good sanitation. They are prone to a couple of pests: tea scale and petal blight. Both will be more severe if fallen leaves and flowers are allowed to remain on the ground under the plants. All leaf litter and mulch should be removed back to bare ground after bloom season and replaced with clean mulch. If you do get tea scale, a thorough spray with dormant oil completely coating both sides of leaves is a safe organic control method. Two well-timed applications of a systemic insecticide during the growing season will knock down really bad infestations. Both controls usually need to be repeated a second season to really get scale under control.

Is your garden ready to wow you with colorful winter blooms? If not, next spring is a great time to remedy the situation with a new camellia. Fortunately, you’ve got all winter in that easy chair to find your personal favorite.

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