Camellias have been one of the mainstays of the Southern garden since they were first brought to Charleston, S.C. in the 1740s by Andre Michaux, the famous French botanist, for his friend Henry Middleton. The handsome evergreen foliage and stunning array of red, pink and white flowers have charmed and enthralled us ever since.
The two main types of camellias grown in the United States are the Camellia japonica and the Camellia sasanqua. Camellia sinensis, the camellia that tea is made from, also does well here, and is gaining in popularity. The sasanquas bloom in the fall and the japonicas in the spring. Between them they can provide flowers from October to May. While most camellias become quite large, almost any size, from groundcover to tree, is available.
The first written records of camellias appear in China over 4000 years ago. They show tea cultivation and production already well advanced. Camellias arrived in Europe in the late 1600s. It was said that the English, wild to obtain tea plants for propagation, ordered plants sent from China, but the Chinese, surely by mistake, sent them Camellia japonica instead.
Mistake or no, hybridizing camellias became a passion throughout Europe and spread quickly across the pond. Both amateur gardeners and professional growers in the U.S. introduced a spectacular array of flowers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the International Camellia Society lists as many as 35,000 cultivars.
We are lucky in the Triangle area to have dedicated growers and hybridizers close by. Cam Too Nursery in Greensboro and Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill have both been working for years to improve the cold hardiness of camellias, resulting in plants that can survive in the mountains and up North as well.
However bewildering the array of flower types, colors and growth habits, camellias all share the same simple needs. They are easy to grow if given conditions they like.
One: Drainage, Drainage, Drainage.
Camellias do not like wet feet. Do not plant them in damp areas.
Two: Amend, Amend, Amend.
Camellias like rich, acidic, well-drained soil. Work plenty of composted organic matter (leaves, bark, manure, and so on) into the soil. Avoid peat moss, as it holds too much moisture.
Three: Plant Them High.
Do not dig a deep hole. Save your back and dig the hole no deeper than the root ball of the plant, and about twice as wide. Use at least half of the soil from the hole and mix it with the amendments. If you have heavy clay soil, let the top of the root ball stick up out of the ground a few inches or more and mound the soil around it.
Four: Give Them Some Shade.
Plant camellias in an area that has some afternoon shade in summer and winter and protection from cold winter winds.
Newly planted camellias should be watered when the top two to three inches of soil around them is dry. This is usually every three to four days. If the soil is remaining constantly moist, read rule number one about drainage.
Not matter what, go back and read rule number one and hold it in your heart.
Camellias require little or no pruning. If you feel the need, prune them right after they bloom or no later than June. Both sasanqua and japonica camellias start to set flower buds in mid to late summer, so you don’t want to risk cutting off the next season’s flowers.
Fertilize camellias lightly with a slow release fertilizer. The roots burn easily, especially on young plants. Regular water during dry spells is actually more important to a young plant’s growth than fertilizer.
That’s it, really. With the extraordinary variety of plants available, there is one that will fit into any landscape to provide both beauty and a connection to a rich heritage of camellia lovers past and present.
Pat Brothers works at Atlantic Gardening Company in Raleigh.