Camellias are the floral queen of winter, so of course this is the season when gardeners fall in love with them. With glossy green leaves, a variety of growth habits, a choice of bloom colors, bloom times and tolerance of our climate, there is much to love.
Native to eastern and southern Asia, there are over 3,000 camellia varieties. Flowering can occur from autumn through spring, depending on the variety. Deservedly one of America’s most popular shrubs, the USDA rates camellias for hardiness zones 7-10. Since the introduction of “Ice Angels,” a variety that tolerates zone 6 conditions where temperatures go as low as minus 10 degrees, even higher elevation residents can enjoy this shrub.
Since camellias make such handsome shrubs, nurseries stay well-stocked. The plant exhibits a wide range of growing habits, from tall screening hedges to spreading groundcovers. They tolerate shade, but with proper selection, correct soil and moisture, some take lots of sun, too. They make excellent, long-lived container plants and can be pruned and shaped from tiny bonsai specimens to tree forms. Most of all, camellias are popular for their flowers which come in six standard forms (singles and doubles); all can be white, candy-striped, pink, red, burgundy, or yellow.
The earliest to flower are varieties of Camellia sasanqua which flowers October through January. Dieter Trost, co-owner of Southern Oregon Nursery in Medford, stocks all the standard C. sasanqua varieties including ‘Yuletide’ which starts blooming a month before Christmas with a profusion of small, single, bright red flowers on dense, compact plants. Trost says C. sasanquas are ideal for our “minimum rainfall climate,” which minimizes the chance that the early blossoms will be damaged by excessive wet weather. This species also takes more sun than most, and, as with all camellias, once established they are quite drought-tolerant. Come March, Trost expects at least 10 new C. sasanqua hybrids.
Camellia japonica is the most widely-grown species. Trost says every year growers are developing and introducing many new improved hybrids, bringing new growing habits, colors, and even fragrance. Toni DeVenney at Valley View Nursery in Ashland says C. japonica requires filtered shade in our hot valleys, this species can grow into large billowing shrubs unless pruned annually, best done shortly after flowering.
Valley View Nursery recommends a little extra care at planting time. Choose a spot that provides protection from strong hot sun and drying winds. Camellias are shallow-rooted and dislike being deeply buried. Give them well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Never plant so the trunk base is below soil line; it’s best to plant a little high and keep roots cool with 2 inches of mulch. For the first few years water regularly and deeply to establish an extensive root system. Fortunately camellias are quite pest-free, but experts advise keeping the foliage mite-free by washing periodically with a spray of water. Fall and winter brings rain and frost which often spoils the flowers of camellias. Solve this problem by planting under evergreen trees or roof eaves, remembering to give them an occasional deep watering. Avoid petal blight problems by removing dead blossoms. To have the most beautiful plants possible,
feed sparingly with acid fertilizer within a few weeks
Camellias bloom so abundantly you will have plenty of glorious blossoms to fill your winter garden as well as winter flower bouquets. Float blossoms in low bowls of water and carefully add flowering branches to your arrangements (be gentle, the heavy blossoms can be knocked off easily). Florists covet the shiny green foliage, so useful as cut greens. Undoubtedly, you will love everything about growing camellias, especially the joy they bring all winter.