Montgomery column: Camellia japonica

A collection of camellias with Daphne and magnolia leaves.
Betty Montgomery
Betty Montgomery | More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK | 10:33 am EST February 10, 2021

Camellias are the prettiest shrubbery that I grow and the flowers are exquisite. During the winter months, when little else is blooming, camellias take center stage with their striking blooms set against dark, glossy green leaves that shine in the winter sun. The blooms come in a range of colors and shapes, and if you choose wisely, you can have plants that bloom from October to April, depending on where you live, of course. Today, Camellias are not only grown in the south but as far north as Oyster Bay, New York and USDA zone 6.

I grew up in the Sandhills of North Carolina, where camellias were one of the staples in most yards. Mother had many different varieties; some were blush pink and others were deep red, pearly white and combinations in-between. She had varieties that had simple blooms like a wild rose and others that resembled peonies.

When I married and moved away, I yearned to have these lovely flowers in our garden during the winter months, when little else was flowering. I wanted different colors and shapes and ones that bloomed at different times so that I could bring them in the house all winter and enjoy them on the dinner table as my mother had done.

I planted several bushes in the yard around the house and two in an area near some woods. The ones closer to the house did not perform as well as the ones closer to the woods. I learned the hard way why.

We live on top of a hill where the wind comes off of the North Carolina mountains. I did not know camellias do not like strong winds. The few I had planted below the house at the edge of the woods, where they were protected from blistering winter winds was a better place to grow them. Camellias also do not like full-sun and I learned that some varieties are hardier than others. Some of the varieties I had seen at camellias shows that have big, ribbon-winning blooms, grew best in warmer conditions or in very protected locations. However, there are plenty of beautiful camellias that grow where I live and also varieties that will grow quite far north.

Camellias are quite versatile plants. They are grown in hedges, espaliered on walls and used as specimen plants in the garden. They look lovely in a formal garden and glow in the woodland setting. You can find varieties that will grow quite tall over time and others that are shorter. There are ones that have a very columnar shape that will fit nicely into a smaller space and others that grow low and wide.

Camellias have exquisite blooms that decorate the bushes in a time when few other plants are in flowers. Debutant and October Affair are the first to bloom in my garden, showing off their flowers before Thanksgiving. Others follow along after Christmas and some continue blooming until mid-spring. Some blooms are small and some can be quite large, 4 inches or more. Though frost might damage the opened flowers, the unopened buds will bounce back and open to their full glory. Some plants flower all at once giving a profusion of blooms and there are others that bloom over a longer period of time with less of a dramatic show. They can bloom early, mid or late season between November to April.

Now, here are some suggestions about growing camellias that might help you be successful. Camellias demand an acidic soil, conditions that are similar to the conditions that rhododendron and Mt. Laurel like, soil high in humus and moisture. Plus, the soil must drain well. Camellias do not want to have wet feet as they might get root rot. They like to have moisture but just not soggy. They also like a half-day of sun and filtered light is best. We have some tall pines and they do quite well under the shade of these trees.

Camellias like to be fed when their growth starts, usually in early April. Granular fertilizers do a good job of feeding the plants, as do other fertilizers like cottonseed meal and Holly Tone. I use a mixture of cottonseed meal, dehydrated cow manure and a little epsom salt because it contains other nutrients that are released over a long period of time and this mixture does not burn the roots. If you use 10-10-10, broadcast it around the base and not too much at one time.

People ask me if camellias are deer-resistant. It is rare but I have seen them eat the new tender growth. I plant small plants and often put a black netting around the plants the first year. Once the leaves are more mature, deer do not bother them.

Camellias are a jewel in the garden and if they like their location, they will live a long time, outliving you. I have seen a bush in China that is said to be over 500 years old. Camellias are truly the jewel of the winter garden and said to be the “sophistic of the plant world”.

Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy,” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at bmontgomery40@gmail.com.

Camellia named Twin.
Betty Montgomery
Originally Published 10:33 am EST February 10, 2021
Updated 10:33 am EST February 10, 2021
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