Why I love Camellias

February is a cold and gloomy month for many across the country, even in South Carolina. That’s why spring flowers are on my mind, and I’m sure I’m not the only gardener! Luckily, we don’t have to wait until the weather warms up to enjoy one of the best blooms of the year – Camellias! Whether you’re looking for flowers in late Fall or late winter, there’s a camellia that will brighten your garden. Even when these plants aren’t in bloom they bring a beautiful dense screen of glossy leaves.

It’s no secret that southern gardeners love Camellias. Most of the year, you wouldn’t know they’re there because the deep green foliage fades in the background, but it’s impossible to miss them in full bloom. The peak blooming season only lasts for a month or 2, but you can stagger varieties based on bloom time to extend the flower season in your garden for months. Camellias are native to Asia, but their blooms are so beloved, it’s the state flower of Alabama! The most common flowering camellia species are C. japonica and C. sasanqua, and each has hundreds of varieties to choose from!

Camellia Japonica

Camellia japonica is arguably the most beautiful bloomer in the genus because it offers the largest flowers. Japonica typically bloom in late winter or spring. In the south the blooms start as early as December and fade in April. Up north, they start in March and bloom until May, and it varies widely depending on the cultivar you choose. Most japonicas have larger leaves than sasanqua and spent flowers fall to the ground completely intact instead of petal by petal like sasanqua. Make sure to give these plenty of room, eventually they can grow 20 feet tall and wide, but are slow growing and take a while to get there.

There are seemingly endless varieties to choose from cultivated for their growth habits, and bloom shape, size, and color. Some blooms focus on the showy yellow stamens, others are fragrant and have a peony shape like “Kramer’s Supreme”. “Professor Sargent” flowers are really complex with a row of flat petals on the edge that jumble into a ball toward the middle. Camellia japonica ‘Hakuhan-kujaku’ is on my wish list because the leaves are narrow and long like a willow tree and the flowers hang like a lantern. The most cold tolerant camellia varieties belong to the japonica species.

Northern growers will have much more luck with japonica than sasanqua! There are some selections that can survive temperature drops briefly below 0F. The flower buds are less cold tolerant than the plant itself and might fail to survive a particularly harsh winter. Ironically in the south, japonica blooms are more prone to freeze damage because of their tendency to bloom during the coldest months of the year in lower latitudes.

Camellia Sasanqua

Camellia sasanqua are known as the “fall blooming camellia”. The leaves are much smaller than japonica and the flowers are less showy. These shrubs have a lot of “flower power” and can bring just as much color as their cousins. The bloom season is much earlier in the season (October through February). I’ve noticed these flowers are less prone to freeze damage than japonica, but the plant is less cold tolerant and typically won’t survive temperatures in the single digits. Definitely a trade off! Japonica and sasanqua both prefer protection from afternoon sunshine, but sasanqua does appear to be more sun tolerant. Sasanqua is often the victim of bad pruning practices from landscapes who decide to prune these plants in fall right before they bloom – taking off most of the flower buds as a result.

Let’s Dive Deeper

Camellias are incredibly low maintenance, but it takes a lot to elevate a beautiful camellia flower into an award winning flower. That extra attention is part of the fun for the experts I met with when I reported at the 2019 Camellia flower show at Kanapaha Botanical Garden in Gainesville, FL. The blooms were huge at the event. Growers have a special way of doing this. They select the best camellia buds early in the season and inject the site with a growth hormone so the shrubs can focus on making a really impressive bloom for the competition.

Meteorologist Alex Calamia reports for WCJB on the 2019 Camellia show at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, FL.

Camellia blooms come in red, white, pink, and a blend of colors in between, but the future is looking bright – and I mean that literally because there are attempts to develop a yellow camellia. Yellow is a very rare color in the world of camellias. Camellia nitidissima was discovered less than 100 years ago, and it’s the only yellow blooming camellia being grown internationally. The species has very tiny flowers, but one day larger yellow camellia flowers may be available through selective breeding and hybridization.

I’ve talked a lot about Camellia flowers in this post, but the most special thing about Camellias are their leaves. It’s the reason we have tea! Camellia sinensis is known as the tea plant because nearly every tea is made from it. Sweet tea is an iconic drink of the south, but the only commercial tea plantation in the United States is in South Carolina on Wadmalaw Island. Camellia sinensis doesn’t have showy blooms like other members of the genus, but I can’t imagine the world without them.

My Camellia Experience

I grew up in New York where camellias were (and still are) a rare site. My grandmother on Long Island had a massive Camellia tree that I talked about in the video posted above. Her camellia shrub was 15 feet tall and over 50 years old. People would ring her doorbell in April asking what kind of rose she had. Of course unlike roses, camellias keep their leaves all year long, bloom earlier, and are much bigger.

New York City and most of Long Island is a USDA zone 7, which means the coldest winter temperatures can fall between 0F and 10F. That’s warm enough to grow camellias, but some camellia varieties are less reliable than others because of the duration of cold in New York. I believe my grandmother’s camellia is “Kumasaka”. I’ve also had luck with “April Rose” and “Kramer’s Supreme” in my parent’s yard on Staten Island. We had a Herme Camellia for more than a decade, but a few winters with near 0F temperatures eventually killed that variety. It was also in a full sun location that it didn’t appreciate. Camellia sasanqua “Long Island Pink” did not survive long term in my parent’s yard. We believe that shrub was in too much shade. There are other sasanqua in my parents’ neighborhood on Staten Island that are very healthy, but they are always less impressive than the japonicas this far north.

I don’t have a yard of my own in South Carolina, so I’m enjoying my camellia as a potted plant. Unfortunately, there aren’t any dwarf camellias, so eventually these will have to be planted in the ground. “Here for a good time, not a long time” is an appropriate expression for potted camellias. They’re a great temporary potted plant because even young camellia plants produce a lot of blooms. I’m growing R.L. Wheeler which has huge flowers and beautiful red and white markings. In South Carolina, this cultivar starts blooming in late January/early February and blooms through March. When summer comes, the camellia is a great pot filler for some hanging annual flowers.

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