If you were to ask me what is my favorite flower, I would have to say, “what ever is in bloom”! Right now, in my neck of the woods, that would be Camellia sasanqua. Their flowers are the jewels of the chilly garden, blooming during fall and winter months depending on the variety. Handsome, glossy, evergreen foliage is an elegant plus in winter providing the garden with needed structure.
Flower color ranges from pure white to pinks and reds, some with interesting variegation. While the species has a great many varieties most gardeners are familiar with C. sasanqua, blooming in fall and C. japonica, which boasts blossoms in late winter. Combining these two in your garden gives several months of color when little else is in bloom.
Despite their somewhat fussy reputation, camellias (zone 6b-9b) are quite easy to grow once you understand a few principals. First, put the plant in the right place and plant it right!
Camellias’ ideal growing conditions are not unlike those of azaleas and so make great planting partners. Specifically, they require a loose, well-amended, acidic (6.5 pH) soil that is moist without remaining soggy, and little competition from other plants’ roots. Their roots have high oxygen demands, therefore are pretty shallow. Cultivating and under-planting around the roots of camellias is not recommended.
Preferring semi-shade they can be planted under tall deciduous trees that do not have an aggressive root system and pines. C. sasanqua is better able to tolerate a sunny location if it is not in the hot afternoon sun. Artificial shade can be created using lath or shade cloth if the conditions are too intense.
Susceptible to root-rot, you’ll want to be sure the root ball is situated so it will not eventually settle below grade. Camellias do not do well in heavy soils. In clay soils I generally recommend amending as much of the planting site as you can rather than only the planting hole. Amending only the hole in those conditions could lead to water accumulation, a sure cause of death. Finally, mulch well and think about this; the plant is essentially still in a pot until the roots break free into the surrounding soil so pay attention to its moisture needs until well established.
Another important factor to consider is proper fertilization. Camellias are not heavy feeders and do not react well to over-stimulation. Interestingly their bloom time is also their dormant period and should not be fertilized then. Cottonseed meal and fish emulsion are good natural choices. Two or three feedings between April 1 and September 1 is all that is necessary.
Pruning is advantageous to control size, maintain shape and create strong branches to support the weight of blossoms. As with most plants it is always best to prune after the bloom period. Camellias also benefit from disbudding. This is the removal of flower buds adjacent to the main terminal bud, which results in a larger more robust bloom, hence the reason for judicious pruning to support the larger blossom.
Given the year ‘round beauty and longevity of these plants I would heartily give a thumbs up for you to try a few in your garden. During those dreary days of fall and winter I think you’ll be glad you did!
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