Diggin' In: A guide to the versatile, colorful camellia

January 26, 2015

Camellias are plants with benefits — they add pops of flower color in the winter garden and help feed pollinating insects that emerge on warm winter days.

"Camellias belong in the home landscape because they are attractive, evergreen shrubs that bloom in what most people consider the off season of fall and winter, some in spring," says Brian O’Neil, director of horticulture at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va., .

This time of year, garden staff offer guided walks through its camellia collection, which includes two major camellia species — the fall-flowering C. sasanqua and late-winter and early-spring blooming C. japonica — and the different types of flowers, such as double, anemone form, single, etc. Camellias are cold hardy in zones 7-9, and often to Zone 6b.

The botanical has more than 1,700 camellia plants in more than 1,100 different cultivars and species, including the tea camellia, Camellia sinensis, which is among the first camellias to bloom in October, according to O’Neil. The Hofheimer Camellia Garden was created in 1992 in memory of Alan and Aline Hofheimer, founding members of the Virginia Camellia Society.

"We have one of the largest collections of camellias in the southeastern USA," he says.

"It has been recognized as an official North American collection of Camellias by the North American Plant Collection Consortium.  We have been honored as an International Camellia Society Garden of Excellence by the ICS."

What landscapers say

"These long-lived, evergreen plants come in sizes ranging from dwarf plants that can be grown in pots, or larger thick-spreading varieties used as hedges and borders, or else grown as focal plants or into sizable trees. Some of my absolute favorites are Camellia sasanqua Yuletide — the red blossoms with yellow centers appear Thanksgiving through Christmas, when nothing else is in bloom. I also like Camellia sasanqua Bonanza, a low-growing reddish pink variety, and the spring-flowering High Fragrance with pale pink peony-like flowers. —Eric Bailey of Landscapes by Eric Bailey in Yorktown, Va.

"I love using camellias in the home landscape — especially the fall-blooming sasanquas since they are generally smaller plants, looser and more graceful than their bigger cousins, and they bloom at a time of year when most plants do not. Some of my favorites are Shishi Gashira, a low-spreading bright pink; Bonanza, often called red but it’s closer to a dark pink; and especially whites like Setsugekka, a single white with crinkled petals and a yellow center and Mine No Yuki, a lovely low-spreading white.

"I sometimes use them as foundation plantings but think they are prettiest scattered along the edge of a natural wood line where their evergreen leaves add nice winter interest. —Peggy Krapf of Heart’s Ease Landscape & Garden Design in Williamsburg, Va

"Camellias are very long lived, and are adaptable to a wide range of lighting. They provide a stable backdrop when not in bloom. They have few pest problems, and with a moderate growth rate require little pruning. Birds love to nest in them. Some of my favorite spring bloomers include Les Marbury, Governor Mouton, Nuccio’s Gem, Destiny and Junie Lancaster. Shi Shi Gashira, Bonanza, William Lanier Hunt, and Autumn Rocket or Moon are fall bloomers which are also dwarfs in some fashion. Make room for camellias — they rarely disappoint, are trouble free, stable, and yet spectacular. – Allan Hull, landscaper and nursery manager at Peninsula Hardwood Mulch in Yorktown; Va.

What extension says

Camellias are pretty easy low maintenance plants with long bloom seasons (usually2-3 months) in shade to part shade and well-drained acid soils, according to Andrew Andruczyk, horticultural Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Chesapeake, Va., and a board member and former president of the Virginia Camellia Society.

"They can get scale insects if they are stressed by planting too deeply or drying out too often," he says

"Thinning branches can help make the plant less favorable for insects and easier to spray should any scale find your plants.

"Camellia flower blight can also become an issue — a fungal disease that only affects open flowers in the spring. Picking up and discarding infected blooms into the trash and remulching in late spring helps reduce further blight.

His favorite camellias include deep-pink Lady Clare, two-toned pink Star Above Star, deep-pink Chansonette and light-pink Tiny Princess.

Camellias 101

Here are some camellia tips from Andruczyk:

Selection: Camellias grow into large plants, so give them plenty of room.

Care: Choose a planting site with at least afternoon shade, never full sun; under pine trees is ideal. Camellias also need good drainage and acidic soil. Give them a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants when they finish blooming.

Pruning: Camellias are pruned immediately after they finish flowering. Prune to remove crossing and rubbing branches.



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