One of the showiest blooms in a Southern garden makes its appearance in late February when everything else is still asleep. It’s the Camellia japonica, cousin to the autumn flowering Camellia sasanqua. While sasanquas tend to be delicate, Camellia japonica is a bold, fleshy flower that screams, “Look at me!”
With their dark, evergreen leaves Camellias make beautiful hedges and the blooms create a seasonal focal point.
Patience has paid off and after a year of waiting, the Camellia sasanqua ‘Maiden’s Blush’ shrubs that I planted last fall are in bloom! The 8 foot tall hedge is lightly festooned with pale pink, single petaled flowers. Judging by all the buds yet to bloom, it promises to be a lovely sight over the next few weeks.
Camellia sasanqua is one of my favorite shrubs. In spite of its delicate reputation it is a real workhorse in the garden. Its glossy, dark green leaves persist throughout the year, making it an ideal backdrop plant until fall, when it takes center stage, transforming into an eye-catching focal point as the flowers appear.
Not too long ago it would have been rare to see camellias north of the state of Virginia. But thanks to the efforts of Dr. William Ackerman and the National Arboretum, gardeners in the North can also appreciate the beauty of this Southern belle.
The camellias Dr. Ackerman developed can take temperatures down to -10 degrees F, which is a huge improvement over the minimum low of 10 degrees F that most Camellia sasanquas can endure. In fact, some varieties of the Ackerman hybrids can even grow in zone 5, which can experience temperatures of -15 to -20 degrees! For the greatest cold tolerance Dr. Ackerman recommends ‘Winter’s Rose’, ‘Winter’s Beauty’ and ‘Winter’s Waterlily’. Like Camellia sasanqua, these varieties also bloom in the fall.
To further ensure a successful experience when growing camellias in colder climates, plant them in a sheltered area that receives bright but filtered light. They prefer naturally acidic soils, but you can also apply fertilizer developed especially for camellias. A 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch will help keep the roots from freezing, just be sure to keep the mulch away from the trunk of the shrub.
Now if you live in the Deep South, you don’t have to feel left out because Dr. Ackerman has been working on heat tolerant camellias as well! Try the varieties ‘Sun Worshiper’ or ‘Two Marthas’ in your region.
Here is a short list of cold hardy camellias.
- Camellia ‘Polar Ice’ – white blooms, anemone form, bloom time Nov.-Dec., slow to moderate growing, 6′ tall.
- Camellia ‘Snow Flurry’ – white blooms, peony form, bloom time Oct.-Nov., moderately vigorous, 7′ tall.
- Camellia ‘Winter’s Charm’ – lavender-pink blooms, peony form, bloom time Oct.-Nov., vigorous upright growing, 10′ tall.
- Camellia ‘Winter’s Interlude’ – pink blooms, small anemone form, bloom time Nov.-Dec., moderate growth, 8′ tall.
- Camellia ‘Winter’s Rose’ – shell pink blooms, formal double form, bloom time Oct.-Nov., slow growing, 6 1/2′ tall.
- Camellia ‘Winter’s Star’ – lavender-pinks blooms, single form, bloom time Oct.-Nov., moderate growth, 8′ tall.