The Camellia: The Queen of the Winter Garden
January 4, 2014
By Hayes Jackson
Camellias have always drawn the attention of gardeners and non-gardeners alike with their luxuriant flowers, glossy evergreen foliage and untimely season of bloom. The numerous cultivars are elegantly named and often bear resemblance to small cabbages with the numerous ruffled petals of pink, red and white. The floral display brings opulent flashes of color to any winter landscape that offers them gentle weather. The change of seasons from the fiery days of summer to the cooler, clear days of autumn give the signal for the camellia to begin its botanical show when so many other plants appear tired and weary.
The camellia has long been a staple of the gardens of the deep South. The common camellia (Camellia japonica) is known simply as a “japonica” to those who have immersed themselves into the realm of all things camellia. There are local shows sponsored by camellia clubs where perfect blooms are displayed in colorful arrays and regional and national clubs provide information and resources to all those addicted to this lovely iconic flower of southern gardens. I did mention it is the Alabama state flower, right? Camellias grace the capitol grounds in Montgomery, dazzle visitors to the Gulf Coast and grace gardens in the far northern reaches of the Tennessee Valley.
The camellia’s humble beginnings are tied to a simpler form native to the forests of Southeast Asia. The native camellia in its mountainous haunts is a beautiful, stately tree that survives for decades or centuries. The single flowers are a pure red and adorn the branches during the cool winter days. On occasion, a tree bearing white or pinkish blooms can be found growing amongst the vivid red. The aberrant color forms were the catalyst that transformed the wild camellia into a frenzy of diversity in color and form.
The original botanical interest was not that of the common Camellia (Camellia japonica), but the plant that is the source of a worldwide quenching beverage, the tea camellia (Camellia sinensis). The tea camellia has been grown for thousands of years for the tiny new growth that is laboriously picked and dried in various methods. The story is that the Chinese wanted to keep a monopoly on tea culture from visiting westerners and baited visitors with the highly ornamental common camellia instead. The common camellia ultimately appeared in Europe as early as the 17th century and popularity soared.
Tea plantations have never taken hold in the United States, despite a few attempts in Southern cities such as Savannah and Charleston. The labor to harvest tea leaves is intensive and costly. Southerners have remained focused on the ornamental garden variety with the fanciful flower forms that are structurally described as double, formal double, rose, anemone and peony form. The surreal amount of petals erupting from a single flower bud is breathtakingly beautiful. The idea that these wonderful camellia flower variations have been developed from simple, five-petaled single blooms is an amazing attribute of plant selection and breeding by those drawn to the beauty and form of the flower.
The common camellia was first introduced from England as a greenhouse plant in the harsher climates of the northern part of our country in the late 1700s. Southerners soon took command and delegated the few various flowering forms or cultivars to the gardens and landscape. Popularity of the camellia waned during the Civil War era, but soon returned to new heights in the early 20th century as new varieties were introduced and developed. Camellia fanciers worldwide began to showcase their newest creations in varietal forms that still occupy both public and private gardens today.
The resurgence of camellia popularity in the recent decades can be attributed to the several factors that have made this garden gem even more appealing. The introduction of more cold-hardy selections has encouraged those beyond the typical camellia belt. Hardier forms such as Korean Fire, with its intense single red blooms, hails from the far northern reaches of the native habitat in a much colder climate. Hardy hybrids with icy winter-themed names such as Snow Flurry or Winter’s Waterlily, have transformed cooler zones into successful camellia venues.
Renewed interest in heirloom and antique varieties such as the commonly seen Mathotiana, or the more elusive Ella Drayton, have provided camellia growers with tried-and-true selections that adorned early antebellum gardens and survived the vagaries of drought, winter chill and neglect. While there are literally thousands of camellia varieties available, locating specific or rare varieties often entails a search including specialty nurseries such as Nuccio’s Nursery in Altadena, California, or Camellia Forest in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where offerings include page after page of neatly organized lists according to particular flower characteristics.
The quest for new forms and colors is an exciting area in the camellia world. There are weeping and cascading forms like Marge Miller, (Camellia sasanqua), a fall blooming species that has seen a huge popularity surge. Other sasanqua varieties like Autumn Sentinel have been developed to grow in upright columns for tight spaces, and dwarf forms like Tanya for containers and planters. We have Bobby Green of Green Nurseries in Fairhope, Alabama, to thank for so many unique camellia introductions. Many of Bobby’s camellias can be found at local nurseries, especially during fall and spring when the plants are in bloom.
The most exciting realm of camellia breeding is the introduction of exciting new colors such as yellow, purple and blue. The true golden yellow camellias are subtropical species with smaller, less attractive blooms. Camellia breeders are looking to cross these species with hardier, larger-blooming varieties to achieve a suitable and attractive yellow camellia for Southern gardens. While some hardy yellow camellias like Lemon Glow are available, the color is more creamy-yellow and not the golden or buttery yellow camellia fanciers yearn to attain.
The purple and blue camellias are a real eye catcher in my Anniston garden. Grape Soda produces mid-winter blooms that vary from true lavender blue to mahogany purple. Camellia sasanqua Green’s Blues and Sparkling Burgundy produce a bluish purple flower when the soil pH is at least 5.0 or lower. Camellias prefer acidic soil, but the bluish tones seem to be exacerbated by the lower pH readings. Many camellias will take on a purple cast with the coolest weather. Roosevelt Blues is a unique variety I spotted many years ago at an Albany, Georgia, camellia show and the intense bluish purple color was outstanding.
Upon visiting a local nursery, the gardener can be deluged with a buffet of varieties to include in the landscape plan. My advice is that no Southern garden should be without a planting of these beautiful flowering shrubs. The choices can be overwhelming. The camellia has been transformed from the simple wild species with independent attributes such as color, flower size, bloom time and fragrance to a hybridized flower that can described as bodacious and gaudy. Yes, there are fragrant camellias too! The aroma tends to be sweet and airy. Fragrant Pink subtly perfumes my garden on warm late winter afternoons. Summer blooming camellias will soon be tempting camellia fanciers. A newly introduced species from China, Camellia azalea, will offer an extended bloom period despite camellias already blooming eight to nine months of the year in our Southern gardens. My problem is that I adore all the simple camellia species as well as the complex and elaborate hybrids and cultivars that have made the camellia one of the most popular flowering shrubs around the globe. My crowded garden is home to around 300 camellias. I cannot seem to turn down any new-found camellia that strikes my fancy. I feel fortunate and damned that the queen of the winter landscape is so well suited to my Southern garden.
Hayes Jackson is Urban Regional Extension Agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and a founding cultivator at the Longleaf Botanical Gardens. He has traveled the world in pursuit of exotic plants and nurtures hundreds of them in his home garden.
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