On Gardening: A camellia by any other name is still the ‘Queen of Shrubs’

February 29, 2016

Frank Houser and the Variegated Frank Houser are hybrids showing off the Camellia reticulata parentage.

If names like japonica, sasanqua, reticulata and even hiemalis are unfamiliar to you then there is a chance you are missing some of the truly great shrubs for the landscape. On the other hand I know there are some of you gardening aficionados who will immediately recognize these are camellia species.

As a young horticulturist, I found group after group of seasoned gardeners who actually referred to camellias as japonicas. This points out some interesting observations. First and foremost there are dozens of other plants with the species name of japonica. 

In defense of the old-timers claim however, I felt an obligation to ask Google, what does japonica mean? The first answer I saw was camellia and the second flowering quince. I couldn’t help but chuckle. Botanically speaking we know it means ‘from Japan.’

But my next observation at the time was that this same generation of gardeners didn’t seem to recognize sasanquas as camellias which would go without saying that the same would be true for all the other species. But I digress……..

It wasn’t long ago that gardeners would have to take advantage of an opportunity to view a private collection at someone’s home, or hit the blacktop for a road trip to some botanical garden’s camellia display to learn about this incredible shrub.

But things have changed and many garden centers offer a dramatic choice in camellias not only by varietal name but many species that are still relatively unknown to the home horticulturist.  In our Judge Arthur Solomon Camellia Garden we feature 44 different species with many more hybrids.

So for the generation that grew up calling them japonicas there is so much more to enjoy. Oh for sure there are camellia japonicas that defy logic with their beauty and form and without a doubt you will want some of these to plant in your own landscape.

This time of the year it is the camellia reticulatas and their hybrids that are among the most mesmerizing. Most gardeners I speak with never knew such a camellia existed. No description that I can give will do this camellia justice. The flowers are enormous in size and exquisite in their design. They also bring in pollinators which I love.

When you see a camellia reticulata like a George Firth or hybrids like Frank Houser and the Variegated Frank Houser you will become totally fixated. You will realize camellias aren’t just japonicas. If you are like me, you will indeed conclude though, these are must-have plants for your landscape.

But you may find yourself thinking that camellias are only for the warmer southern zones. This will hold true for certain species and hybrids but today’s breeding has brought forth the Winter Series that boasts not only exquisite flowers but cold hardiness to zone 6.

All camellias require fertile well-drained acidic soil and most do best in high filtered or shifting light, versus full sun. So pay attention to your soil preparation working in 3 or 4-inches of organic matter and plant on raised beds. While many camellias are planted in the fall, spring is also an exceptional time for planting ‘The Queen’ of woody shrubs.



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