October 2019

The camellia’s refined blossoms rival the exquisite beauty of roses, but its handsome, glossy foliage is evergreen and its blooms are prized for coming in fall and winter when flowers are rare. The shrub’s variety of shapes and sizes offer versatility in the landscape and in containers. They belong to the family Theaceae, of which Camellia sinensis is famous as the “tea plant.” Perhaps the best-known garden variety is C. japonica (meaning “Japanese”), the stalwart shrub long beloved in the South that can bloom from early winter to late spring. Camellia sasanqua, the generally smaller jewel of autumn, has gained importance and popularity. Flowering from October through December, it is not as likely to be damaged by cold and is less picky about soil conditions and sun exposure. Hardy hybrids can withstand temperatures below zero with some shelter from winter sun and wind, so there are ever-expanding ways to garb the fall and winter garden in unexpected glamour.

The ornamental value of camellias in the landscape is remarkable. They perform beautifully as woodland plantings. Since their native habitat is the wooded hills of China and Japan, they are ideal understory plants to tall trees, especially pines whose natural litter of needles supplies a nice protective mulch of the acid flavor they enjoy. They can also be standouts in the open garden as tree-like specimens, as shrubbery in beds or borders, or as informal hedges or screens for a year-round solid wall of glossy greenery that luckily deer don’t seem to munch. Branches can be upright or lax, offering even more versatile options. They can be clipped to create formal avenues next to paved walks or lax ones can grow freely to form romantic camellia tunnels. The varieties of a more sprawling habit can even be used as lustrous ground cover. The stems are pliable and ideal to espalier or train flat against a wall or fence. Lower branches can be completely removed, training the trunks into standards to look like giant lollipops or the Queen of Hearts’ topiaries in Alice’s Wonderland.

Some gardeners like to prune large C. japonicas into multi-trunks like a typical crepe myrtle. Removing the lowest branches encourages upright growth. Conversely, lanky C. sasanquas can be made bushier by cutting their tops. Prune japonicas after they bloom and sasanquas in early spring before buds form, making the cut just above a scar that marks last year’s growth. The rewards of becoming a branch manager are great. Disbudding is a practice where several buds are carefully removed from a cluster, leaving about two buds to each end so that the plant’s energy will go into making fewer but much larger blooms. If you aspire to show-quality perfection, leave only one bud to each terminal. These buxom beauties can be entered in camellia shows or left on the shrub to dazzle the neighborhood. Smaller camellias are candidates for containers. Try 22- to 24-inch pots and instead of foam pellets at the bottom, use pine cones that will decompose and add to organic composition of the soil. Experts train fine-leaved dwarf varieties into bonsai.

Camellia enthusiasts have even more tricks up their gardening sleeves, as when they talk the showtalk of “gibbing” in August for fall flower shows. This means applying gibberellic acid with an eye dropper. One drop on a bud makes all cells elongate for supersized blooms that open early to wow the judges. They know well the six exquisite flower forms: single (conspicuous stamens) with one row of petals; semi-double with two rows of petals; anemone form; peony form; rose form double (overlapping petals); and formal double (which never show stamens). Colors range from pristine white to pink to deep red with variations including peppermint striped, speckled, splashed with varying colors and different patterns, sometimes on one plant. The C. sasanqua Yuletide is a true red and one of the most popular varieties. Place their bright blooms in December wreaths or with holiday garland.

Fall is the perfect time to plant camellias, so do indulge now. Be generous in digging the hole wider than the container and twice as deep in well-draining soil. Most importantly, be sure the top of the root ball is even with the soil surface. New plants appreciate a good, 2-inch-thick mulch. Gorgeous blossoms will distinguish your cooling landscape and floating them in a shallow bowl will make your table sparkle.