After downsizing to a smaller place last year, there is one thing that I miss — the dozen camellias that I planted over the years as well as two really old ones at my Victorian homestead. I think these two older camellias were close to 100 years old, which tells you that, once established, these are tough plants. One is a gorgeous large, light pink, informal double-style bloom named “Debutante,” and it was developed initially as “Sara C. Hastie” around 1900 in the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, South Carolina. It was later renamed “Debutante” for sales appeal. Fortunately, I do have one mature white-blooming camellia at my new residence and maybe I will add more.

Camellia japonica blooms from late December through March depending on the variety. There are now a large number of hybrids of C. japonica (about 2,000 named cultivars), which originally were understory plants in the mountain forests of Asia. Camellia japonica is one of 250 species and one of these, C. sinensis, is widely planted for its tea leaves, so thanks to camellias you get to enjoy tea. Another species, camellia sasanqua, is also planted as an ornamental and although not as popular as the C. japonica, it does bloom earlier in November and December so you can enjoy camellias longer if you plant both kinds.

Camellias were first sold in the United States in 1807 as greenhouse plants, but were soon planted outdoors in the Southern states. The state flower of Alabama is C. japonica. They first arrived in Sacramento from Japan on February 7, 1852, and have thrived there so well that Sacramento is known as the Camellia City. Each spring, the Sacramento Camellia Society, established in 1924, holds its annual flower show. Next year’s show will be held March 2 and 3 at the Elks Lodge, 6446 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento. It will be the 95th annual show and is the oldest camellia show in the U.S. For more information about the society, see: https://www.camelliasocietyofsacramento.org/home.html.

Magnolia Plantation and Garden in Charleston, South Carolina, has 20,000 camellias in its garden collection from the 19th century to the present. One of the oldest gardens in the U.S., it was first planted 325 years ago and has been open to the public since the 1870s. It has been designated an International Camellia Garden of Excellence and is visited by tourists from around the world.

Camellia blossoms are highly varied in form and range between 1½ and 5 inches in size. The recognized forms are single, semi-double, irregular semi-double, formal double, informal double (previously called peony form) and elegans (previously known as anemone form). Colors are white, pink, red, various blends of white and pink and red and white for both species and hybrids. For views of form and colors, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camellia_japonica.

Both camellias are not difficult to grow, but it is important to do some things correctly to avoid failure. Plant it right and in the right place. The roots are shallow and have high oxygen demand. They do well in a loose, well-amended soil with good drainage and a pH of about 6.5. Therefore it is important to keep the soil level in the pot even with that of the planting soil and not bury the root ball deep or cover roots with too much soil. It is also important that they don’t compete with other plants’ roots. In the Central Valley, it is best to plant them in dappled shade and give them afternoon shade if at all possible. Camellias are apparently a deer-proof plant and they can handle cold weather to a point. They are limited to USDA climate zones 7-10 and can handle short bouts with below-freezing temperatures but should be protected from winds if possible.

Camellias can be pruned to control height and spread, but it is best to plant them with lots of room. Some will grow to 20 feet tall or more and be perhaps half as wide as tall. It is good to check on the variety to see what size is listed and space accordingly. The listed height of “Debutante” ranges from 6 feet to 15 feet in catalogues, but my “Debutante” was more than 20 feet high.

Camellia petal blight, a fungus, will turn blossoms brown and is difficult to control using the preferred method of sanitation. Infected blooms should be removed and destroyed from both the plant and off the ground. Mulch should be replaced annually.

The next few months are ideal to select and plant camellias for they will be blooming in the nurseries and you can find the blooms and plants that you like. Happy camellia gardening.

 

If you have a gardening-related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at (209) 953-6112. More information can be found at http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/contact_us/.