Camellias are the star of our November garden

Camellias are the star of our November garden

Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 8:00 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

The undisputed champions of our November garden have been the camellias. Well, maybe along with Korean mums, Knockout roses, autumn leaves and on ad infinitum.
Yes, November was a good month.
If you haven’t tried the fairly modern winter-hardy (here in zone 7 anyway) camellias, you’ve really missed the boat. A number of years ago Dr. William Ackerman began to breed camellias that would stand zone 7 (and even 6) winters in the Potomac area of Maryland. His exemplary work has allowed those of us outside the traditional deep south camellia territory to enjoy them.
I had a cousin in Pensacola, Fla., who was an avid camellia grower and who won many prizes at flower shows. He was once president of the American Camellia Society.
His plants were all Camelia sasanqua and Camellia japonica varieties. They were not, for the most part, winter hardy here, though there is an old bush yet extant at the home of Joan Stevens, my cousin and his, on Greenacres Drive that he brought here in the 1950s. It flowers most years in spring, with four-inch double red blooms. It has frozen to the ground numerous times, but never since Al Gore invented global warming.
Ackerman crossed many of these kinds of camellias with Camellia oleifera, a cold-hardy species from the Orient grown not for flowers but for oil-bearing seeds. The specific epithet, in fact, means “oil bearing.”
The result has been a proliferation, in fits and starts at first but apace in recent years, of named hybrids that will easily stand our winters. None have the huge show-table flowers of the more southern sorts, but are nonetheless admirable landscape and garden shrubs.
Among the older hardy ones are Winter’s Star (white), Winter’s Charm (lavender pink) and Winter’s Beauty (pink). All of these have three-inch-wide flowers, single or semi-double, that are presented from mid-October well into the winter, until freezes become disabling to blooms. Even if some flowers are frozen out, other buds often open later. There are, now, other hardy hybrids that will flower in spring.
These camellias are not too rare in the trade. Many nurseries carry them, and even some box stores are starting to as well. Just be sure you read the label for cold-hardiness, since nurseries also sell (or try to sell) other types that won’t stand much below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Planting methodology recommendations are at a variance here from what they are further south. Fall planting is often touted there, and nurseries that carry fall-blooming kinds push the practice because that is when they are most salable, that is, loaded with flowers.
Fall planting here, if followed by severe winter weather, can be detrimental. If roots have not gained purchase into surrounding soil (and mostly they haven’t, especially with small plants) then they can be pushed by freezing and thawing right out of the ground.
Spring planting is recommended but, however, presents another dilemma that is common with any spring-planted specimen here, the rapid incursion of hot and dry weather onto the scene. So you take the lesser of the evils.
Personally, post-Gore I take my chances with fall planting, even though I have found camellias to be far more resistant to drought than azaleas.
A pretty picture in our rock wall border since mid-October has been a Knockout rose, some three feet tall and loaded with fall bloom of pinky-red, backed by a Winter’s Charm camellia, at about five feet and also loaded but with lighter toned flowers. The complimenting colors make a fine harmony.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is the garden writer for The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at (731) 642-1162.

Published in The Messenger 12.4.12

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