Camellias evoke the image of large double-flowered blooms, but there are other garden-worthy types to consider. In particular, cluster-flowered camellias produce a profusion of small flowers and resemble a cherry tree or azalea bush when in full bloom.
In the wild, there are many species of camellias that produce small flowers. Almost all of these are white-flowered and are characterized by having multiple buds at each node and producing buds all along the stems. Species such as Camellia transnokoensis, C. lutchuensis, C. yuhsienensis, C. handelii, C. fraterna and C. parvalimba are all wonderful garden plants, often with arching branches that become weighed down with the numerous blooms. Although these can be very showy, they are mostly white-flowered and some have tiny flowers. So, plant breeders have crossed these species with larger pink and red-flowered camellias to produce hybrids such as ‘Crimson Candles’, ‘Minato no akebono’, ‘Yume’, ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Japanese Fantasy’, ‘Spring Mist’, ‘Vernal Breeze’ and ‘Spring Awakening’.
‘Crimson Candles’ is the epitome of a cluster-flowered camellia because of the number of blooms. It is outstanding in other ways as well; the tips of the buds start showing red in late fall and are like small candles until they bloom around Valentine’s Day. The flowers open to an intense cerise color with small single flowers up and down the stems. Interestingly, the parentage is C. fraterna and C. reticulata which has the largest flowers of any camellia. The plant grows vigorously and will become 10-feet tall and 6-feet wide in about ten years. It can be used as a focal point or even as a hedge since it has such rapid growth. This camellia has survived many winters with temperatures of zero degrees.
Camellia ‘Minato no akebono’ / Camellia Forest Nursery
‘Minato no akebono’ has a sweet fragrance which comes from the C. lutchensis parent. The flowers are single and range from a deep mauve to almost white at the center of the flower. Fragrance is rare in camellias, but this is one of the more strongly scented varieties—although you still have to stick your nose into the flower to get the fragrance. This upright growing plant is hardy to zone 7B. Plant this one near a pathway or door so you will be reminded to smell the pretty little flowers.
‘Yume’ is a fall bloomer and a little different because the flowers tend to cluster at the tips of the branches. Sometimes there are as many as 20 buds at the tip of a branch, which allows this one to bloom over a very long period. The flowers are very unusual because the petals look like they alternate between white and pink. The unusual bicolor pattern is a surprise, as neither parent has the color pattern. One parent is the white-flowered C. yuhsienensis and the other parent is the pink-flowered C. sasanqua ‘Shishigashira’. Seedlings of the plant sometimes have the bicolor pattern and often have a heavy blooming habit. ‘Dream Quilt’ is one seedling with unusual petals that curl to create space between the petals.
While most cluster-flowered camellias are single-flowered, ‘Sweet Jane’ is a formal double flower. Each flower is a miniature camellia bloom in light pink shading deeper at the edges of the blooms. These blooms are probably the best ones of this group for cutting as they will last longer than most. The double C. japonica ‘Debutante’ was crossed with C. transnokoensis to obtain this unique plant.
When you want some bright color in the garden try some of the cluster-flowered camellias. The mass bloom gives a different aspect to camellias. These are easy to grow and are generally more sun tolerant than Camellia japonica. They can be used as specimen plants where a burst of color is needed; the bright colors can be seen from a long distance away because of the profusion of flowers. Some of the fast-growing varieties such as ‘Crimson Candles’, ‘Spring Festival’ and ‘Japanese Fantasy’ can be used for screening or hedges. Just remember to prune just after bloom so you don’t cut off the flowers for next year.
So break the mold and grow cluster-flowered camellias. You will be pleased with the burst of color on a bleak wintery day.
Featured image – Camellia ‘Crimson Candles’ / Camellia Forest Nursery
David Parks is the owner of Camellia Forest Nursery and grew up surrounded by a garden of camellias planted by his parents.