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Camellias in Bloom

by Mary Syrett

ONE OF THE SHOWIEST PLANTS found in Southwest Florida gardens is the camellia. Shrubs of the genus Camellia are generally pest free and produce a profusion of tantalizingly beautiful flowers.

Key features of the plant are the blossoms that appear between September and March. These blossoms make camellias especially valuable at a time of year when there is oftentimes little color otherwise to be found in gardens. With blossoms appearing in several forms, which the casual floral observer might compare to a rose or peony, and colors ranging from pure white through the pinks to fire engine red and deep burgundy, camellias add magnificent beauty to Southwest Florida landscapes.

Camellia flowers are so perfect in form and precise in color you cannot help but lift them to your nose in anticipation of a sweet fragrance. But alas, fragrance is a characteristic most camellias lack. Still, even without a natural perfume, these beautiful flowers can be enjoyed inside the home as well as in a garden. Because of their short stems, camellia flowers are oftentimes displayed floating in water.

ORIGINS

Named by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1735 to honor the Jesuit priest Georg Kamel (Camellus in Latin), camellias have been grown in China, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea and Japan for well over a thousand years.

In China, the plant developed to perfection in misty valleys having damp soils and shady growing conditions. To the ancient Chinese, the camellia was a treasured floral favorite: a beautiful plant to contemplate in the garden or forest, to admire as floating blossoms in a bowl of water, and/or to paint its elegant blooms.

Camellias arrived in Europe in the early 1700s. The first camellia plant to reach Italy is one that has been growing in the park of the Reggia di Caserta (Caserta Palace), and is the mother of the first Italian hybrids. Camellias were also extensively grown in France and Belgium.

Camellias were introduced into the United States around the end of the 18th century. While at first they were grown primarily in greenhouses in the colder climate areas of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, camellias soon became favorites in Southern gardens where soil conditions and climate resemble their native Asian habitat. As greenhouse plants, camellias are magnificent year-round plants in all parts of the United States.

The number of camellia hybrids produced up to 1920 was around 10,000. In the following decades, camellias were all but forgotten. Beginning around 1960, interest was rekindled by new cultivars (a horticulturally derived variety of a plant, as distinguished from a natural variety) being developed in Britain and the United States. Propagation techniques were refined, which encouraged growing camellias from cuttings.

VARIETIES

The camellia family contains three primary species: japonica, sasanqua and sinensis. All three varieties have glossy, leathery evergreen leaves with a serrated edge.

Sasanqua and japonica are the most commonly grown camellias in Florida. Both are dependable performers in the garden and are similar in appearance. The major difference between the two is the season of bloom.

Blooming in the fall, Camellia sasanqua is an ideal choice for gardens. Although they burst into flower as temperatures cool, the open blooms turn to mushy brown balls when temperatures dip below freezing. However, during the fall, exposure to temperatures this low is limited to a few quick dips. Consequently, Southwest Florida flower aficionados get to enjoy many weeks of flowering sasanquas. Choose sasanqua when in flower, because there is a wide range of colors and sizes. A primary characteristic of the sasanqua is that it can tolerate more sun exposure than can spring flowering camellias.

Camellia Japonica blooms later. We can count on its flowers in the winter — December through mid-March. A good collection of camellias should include a few choice specimens from both groups.

The tea camellia (Camellia Sinensis) does not produce as prominent a flower as do the others, but is somewhat hardier. This is the camellia from which tea is harvested.

GROWING

Some camellias are only hardy from 10-20 degrees F. The less hardy ones I grow in pots and only bring them into the garage during the coolest days of winter. Otherwise they are sheltered from west and north winds by my house. I have had good luck planting the hardy varieties on the north side of my house where they get partial sun.

In Florida I have grown Ackerman hybrids quite well, and also a japonica variety called “Governor Mouton”— a beautiful red and white variety. Depending on the weather, it blooms in late February or early March every year, even in cool weather.

With careful choosing of the cool tolerant varieties, placement out of the wind and away from the winter morning sun, along with new hybrids, Southwest Florida should be able to produce beautiful camellia plantings to rival its magnificent azaleas.

Inspect camellias closely before buying. Look for wounds or scars at the base of the plant that can become cankerous and cause a plant to die. Check the root system as well. Look for healthy white roots. If the roots are brown, the plant has been poorly cared for, or it may have a soil-borne disease.

Camellias work well in most gardens, from around a patio to woodland areas. For the best effect, plant selectively. One plant can make just the right floral statement, especially in a small garden. Where there is more space, place them around other plantings of trees and shrubs so that the color created at flowering time punctuates the overall garden appearance.

Camellias grow best in loose, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. A pH between 5.5 and 6.5 is recommended. Take a soil test before planting. Late fall to early spring is the best time to plant. Space plants according to their mature size. Most camellias will eventually spread six to eight feet in diameter. Space plants about six feet apart when planting a hedge.

Because camellias are shallow rooted, select a site that is well drained, or plant in raised beds. Camellias must have good soil aeration or they will likely die from root rot.

Prepare an entire bed at one time. Individual planting holes should be two to three times as wide as the root ball. After planting, apply a four-inch layer of mulch, pine straw or pine bark nuggets.

Camellias are cherished by garden lovers the world over. One cannot help but be impressed by the perfectly formed, iridescent blossoms in many shades of pink, red, burgundy and pure white, and by the beautiful evergreen shrubs that grow in the shady parts of Fort Myers area gardens. Along with the rose, camellias are symbols of love and purity, in Florida and elsewhere. Enjoy and please conserve water, our greatest natural resource. •

from the September-October 2008 issue

Even without a natural perfume, these beautiful flowers can be enjoyed inside the home as well as in the garden.

Inspect camellias closely before buying. Look for wounds or scars at the base of the plant. Check the root system as well. Look for healthy white roots.