It is always a bit of a letdown this time of year when we take the holiday decorations down. One way to keep a spot of color in the winter landscape is the use of camellias.
Camellias are evergreen shrubs that add great color from the late fall through early spring. Camellias are not as common in our gardens as azaleas, but they should be. Camellias can bloom for months in a season when not much else is blooming, and they have glossy green foliage the rest of the growing season.
There are more than 100 species of camellias that grow wild in Asia, but there are only a handful of species
commonly grown and sold in the United States. Although the number of species is limited here, there are more than 20,000 varieties and crosses, with new introductions every year. Luckily for gardeners in the top tier of the state, we are seeing an increase in cold-tolerant varieties, giving all Arkansans the opportunity to grow camellias.
The most cold-tolerant species is the tea-oil camellia — Camellia oleifera. Breeders crossed that variety with other species to create showy hybrid varieties that will survive winters that get as low as minus 12 degrees. Winter’s Charm, Snow Flurry and Polar Ice were some of the first hardy varieties, and there are many others now including the Ice Angel series, the April series and more. There are choices for both fall bloomers and late-winter/spring bloomers.
Mature plant size, flower size and color will vary depending on which species you are growing so read the tag to know what you are getting. Camellia varieties range from mature plants reaching 2-3 feet in height to 15 feet or more. Choosing a plant that will fit your situation at maturity will cut down on your pruning chores. Camellia flower colors range from shades of red, pink and white with many bi-color blends as well. The flower form can vary tremendously by species with singles, semi-doubles, doubles, rose, peony and anemone forms.
The two main camellias that have been planted for years are the hardier and smaller flowering Camellia
sasanqua, which blooms in the fall through early winter, and the Camellia japonica, a more winter-sensitive plant with larger flowers and later blooms. Today there are many hybrids with a wide range of flower forms and bloom times.
A camellia that is gaining in popularity is the tea camellia, Camellia sinensis. While not as showy as most camellias, with small white blooms in the fall, the hot or cold tea we drink comes from this plant. Boutique tea farms are popping up across the South, and some gardeners are trying their hand at making their own tea.
Camellias grow best in a rich, well-drained, acidic soil. They prefer filtered sunlight or morning sun and afternoon shade. They will live in heavy shade, but you won’t see many blooms. In full sun, they can experience sun scald. Camellias need ample moisture the first few years, but once established, they are actually fairly drought-tolerant. If we have an extremely dry summer, they benefit from supplemental water; if they get overly dry, they simply won’t set as many flower buds. They are much tougher than azaleas but do grow well with them.
Camellias are fairly easy to maintain once they get established. Fertilize once a year in the spring. If they are growing in with azaleas, treat them all at the same time after the azaleas have finished flowering. That is also the time to do any needed pruning.
Bud drop can be a problem with some varieties, but can occur on all types depending on the growing season. Because camellias bloom during the fall and winter months, they are susceptible to all the fluctuating temperatures we have in Arkansas. Freezing temperatures can cause buds to drop on the less cold-hardy varieties. Camellias are most sensitive to freezes when flowers are opening or showing color. Long periods of hot, dry weather in the early fall can cause buds to drop if supplemental water is not given. If you have late-blooming varieties and we have a really mild winter, new foliage growth may begin earlier in the spring which can cause the flower buds to fall off before they open — a problem called “bullnosing.”
With so many different camellias on the market, selections will vary. Read the tags and find out the eventual size and bloom period. (A Louisiana nursery specializing in camellias, will be at the Arkansas Flower & Garden Show, Feb. 28, 29 and March 1 at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.)
While it is common to plant camellias in the fall and early winter so you can pick flower color, gardeners in the northern tier of Arkansas may want to wait and plant in early spring. Although many of the newer varieties are more cold-tolerant, winter tolerance will be better with an established root system.
Plant camellias in the right place, and they can be an excellent addition to your garden for many years. If your garden has room, choose several types with different blooming times to expand your bloom season, then you can have camellias blooming from October through April.