Hurricane Matthew gave our Judge Arthur Solomon Camellia Trail a stiff uppercut as it brought down a lot of large trees. Now, one month later, the fall-blooming camellias are bringing in guests to gaze upon their beauty and their pollinating honeybee visitors. The bees seem to be in ecstasy as they literally dive into a cave of pollen. It’s not just one bee to a flower, but three or four at a time.
Mention fall-blooming camellias and the first thought is most likely the sasanqua camellia. You would treasure this plant, with its deep, glossy, green foliage, even if it never bloomed. There are many varieties and each has the ability to provide the bones or evergreen structure needed in the home landscape.
Many camellias, like ‘Pink Butterfly’ or ‘Pink Serenade,’ have colorful flowers that reach 5 to 6 inches wide and exhibit bright golden stamens. Then there are bicolored selections, like ‘Leslie Ann’ and ‘Hana Jiman,’ that look like they were painted by an artist’s brush.
Perhaps you think camellias might not be cold hardy. Depending on where you live, you might need one of the winter series. ‘Winter’s Rose,’ ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Hope’ are Camellia oleifera hybrids released by the U.S. National Arboretum and are cold hardy to zone 6b, which means that they are suitable as far north as places like St. Louis and Maryland. The Camellia oleifera, commonly called “tea oil camellia,” brings in pollinators and offers terrific cold hardiness.
But there are other fall-blooming camellias, such as the Camellia hiemalis, or snow camellia, and well-known cultivars like ‘Kanjiro’ and the award-winning compact ‘Shishigashira.’ Then there is the one we consider the ultimate Christmas camellia, ‘Yuletide,’ a Camellia vernalis hybrid selection with the truest red petals and bright golden stamens.
Fifteen years ago, the camellia world was turned on its head with the introduction of ‘Early Autumn,’ a true formal double-form Camellia japonica that blooms in the fall. From September through December, gardeners enjoy the exquisite blooms that most consider available only in February or March, depending on how cold the winter. ‘Early Autumn’ is incredibly beautiful and quick to make it on my list of must-have camellias.
Camellias are ideally suited for the high shade or filtered light garden, although sasanquas can tolerate quite a bit more sun. At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah, Georgia, we paired ours with a high canopy of pine and picturesque castanopsis trees with almost-white bark.
Camellias require fertile, well-drained, acidic soil. If you live in a zone like 6b or 7, consider placing them on the south to southeast side of your home or another protected microclimate. If you live in a colder zone, they are great in containers that can be moved as needed for protection from the cold.
Fall is a great time to plant, and inventories of camellias are normally at their highest now. Roots increase dramatically during the cool season, allowing the plant to get acclimated and take off once growth resumes in the spring.
In the landscape, put them in a bed versus surrounding them with turf. Try clustering three together in front of Nellie R. Stevens or Foster’s holly. For a truly exquisite look, use them in combination with the smaller red holly hybrids like ‘Festive,’ ‘Robin’ or ‘Little Red.’ These combinations will make your woodland landscape the envy of friends and family.
Camellias have the ability to deliver to the home landscape a succession of blooms from September to April. There are selections with fragrance, picturesque bark and flowers that will create that Kodak moment. There is no doubt that the camellia is indeed the queen of shrubs.
(Norman Winter is the director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm in Savannah, Georgia.)