Camellias; One of the Best Plants for the Southern Landscape

collections_camelliasI love camellias. Whenever a customer responds to the suggestion of a camellia with ‘Oh, I already have one.’ I want to respond with sympathy ‘Only one? How sad. Let me help you.’

The camellia is a very versatile shrub which can perform many functions in the landscape be it hedge, specimen, foundation plant, even groundcover. You can find one form or another blooming anywhere from October to April-May. Flower color ranges from rich red (Professor Sargent) to pinks of all hues (Pink Butterfly and April Rose come to mind) to white (White by the Gate is planted at the nursery). Flower forms can look like apple blossoms, peonies or roses. One of the most beautiful is the impossibly perfect formal double, typified by Nuccio’s Gem. They are wonderful cut flowers in a vase or floating in a bowl of water. A small handful, like Apple Blossom, are even fragrant.

Camellia Winter's SnowmanThere are many species of camellia, but the most commonly seen are the Camellia japonica and the Camellia sasanqua. Japonicas generally have larger leaves and flowers and typically bloom from February to April. Some start much earlier. My Debutante starts blooming in November. Sasanquas have smaller leaves and smaller but much more abundant flowers. They mostly start blooming in October and bloom till December, but there is a wide range of bloom times for them as well. There has been a lot of complicated crossbreeding of species to improve cold tolerance and there are now a goodly number of Zone 6 camellias, making them available to our formerly deprived friends in the North. They are inching toward yellow and lavender flowers as well.

Adolph Audusson camelliaCamellias have only a few requirements, the most important being afternoon shade and decent drainage. They grow quite well under trees and once established are drought tolerant. They are as a whole slow growing, but can be nudged along with adequate water and fertilizer. They can be planted now; just be sure to water them occasionally if there is no rain.

Apple Blossom

Interestingly, camellias, especially those with more open flower forms, are a good winter source of pollen for bees. While bees usually stay hive bound in winter, on warmer days they will zoom around looking for food and incidentally burning up calories and honey stores. With limited winter blooming options, camellias provide an important source of food for our dwindling, yet important, bee populations.

Camellia sasanqua Yuletide

Camellias are as integral to the Southern landscape as the Southern magnolia and the crapemyrtle. With the interesting new forms being introduced, there are many shorter, lower and narrower varieties that will find a place even in our smaller yards. So you can have one, two, three or even more and still have plenty of variation!