By Connie Cottingham
Quintessential classic Southern shrubs, camellias offer so much. Exquisite blooms stand out against glossy green leaves in fall and winter. A Georgia garden can have camellias in bloom from fall to spring – blooms that range from perfectly sculptured to voluptuous and flamboyant to simple, single blossoms.
Camellia, the state flower of Alabama, is a genus of large evergreen flowering shrubs that are actually native to countries in the far east such as Indonesia, Japan and Korea. They can live an extraordinarily long time, with some living well over 200 years.
Most camellias grown in the United States are sasanquas or japonicas. By having both in your garden, you can have blooming camellias through much of the cooler months. Sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua) bloom at the end of the year, starting to bloom in late fall. The blooms tend to be smaller than the japonicas. The plant tends to be smaller, too, maturing at six to 10 feet tall.
Japonicas (Camellia japonica) bloom at the beginning of the year, from almost Christmas until almost Easter and peaking in February. Maturing at 10 to 20 feet tall, japonicas can take more shade and should be kept out of afternoon sun. They love the shade and wind protection that pines offer. Sasanquas are tougher plants and can take more sun, but I would recommend afternoon shade for any camellias.
It may take years for these slow growers to reach mature size; very old specimens may become larger than the sizes I stated. Breeders are developing many new varieties, focusing on smaller sizes and more cold hardiness. The further north you live, the more selective you need to be for cold hardiness. One good rule of thumb is to look around and see what thrives in your area. Camellias grow best in well-drained, acid soil, with dappled shade and protection from winter winds in zones 7 to 9.
I highly suggest adding this evergreen shrub into your garden, but also into your home. Try using your little bud vases or floating camellia blossoms in a shallow crystal or silver bowl to show off these exquisite blooms. Or use the glossy leaves for a little texture contrast among needled evergreens this holiday season. A little trick to keep camellia blooms fresh for a few hours, perhaps tucking them into evergreens for a dinner party, is to use a skewer to poke a hole in the top of a grape, then insert a camellia stem into the grape (see photo).
Camellias are one blossom I will cut if a rare freeze is forecast, bringing the blossoms in to enjoy rather than letting frigid temperatures melt them.
Enjoy your camellias this winter – inside your home and out!