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News / Life / Lifestyles

Camellias don’t deserve bad rep

So-called garden divas easy to grow in correct conditions

By JESSICA DAMIANO, Associated Press
Published: December 16, 2023, 6:06am
5 Photos
A Camellia japonica &ldquo;Winter&rsquo;s Cupid&rdquo; flower. (Photos by Vincent A.
A Camellia japonica “Winter’s Cupid” flower. (Photos by Vincent A. Simeone/Planting Fields Archives) Photo Gallery

Camellias, known as “the queens of the winter flowers,” have for some reason been saddled with an unfair reputation as being difficult.

Yes, they are susceptible to fungal diseases and scale insect infestations, but so are many other plants. And it’s true they don’t like salt spray or abrupt changes in temperature or irrigation, but neither do I.

Far from being divas, these long-blooming, fragrant shrubs in the tea family have few requirements: They should be planted in rich, fertile, well-draining soil that’s kept moist but never soggy, and fed once a year, right after blooming, with a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

Top-dressing with an inch or so of compost every year will provide a beneficial boost of nutrients, but gardeners should refrain from over-fertilizing or planting them under large trees that might outcompete them for resources.

Major pruning isn’t usually necessary but, if warranted, should be done immediately after flowering. Remove old, dead stems and branches that may interfere with bud formation, and trim to control the shrub’s size and shape, if desired.

Camellias are also deer-resistant, which is only to say they aren’t on the animal’s list of preferred foods. But, as folks gardening in deer country know, a hungry deer (like a hungry Jessica) will probably eat anything.

The two most common species of camellia, the state flower of Alabama, are japonica and sasanqua. Both are evergreen Asian natives that can be planted alone as specimens, in rows along foundations, in shrub borders or as informal hedges.

Camellia japonica is an early spring bloomer with a densely branched, pyramidical shape that grows to between 6 and 12 feet tall and 5 and 10 feet wide. The species includes types with white, pink, red, yellow and lavender flowers.

Its cousin, Camellia sasanqua, is an autumn bloomer that will brighten the garden at the beginning of winter with single, semi-double or double pink or white flowers. It can handle more sun than japonica (as long as the soil is kept moist), and has fewer pest and disease concerns, but it is not immune.

Both species require slightly acidic soil with a pH level between 6.0 and 6.5. Test your soil before planting and amend if necessary by incorporating peat moss or elemental sulfur to lower the pH, or dolomitic lime to raise it. Follow package instructions for dosing.

Growing camellias outside their target pH range can lead to iron deficiencies and yellow foliage.

In all, there are thousands of varieties and cultivars to choose from. Most are hardy in USDA zones 7-9, but in recent years, breeders have developed hybrids that can withstand warmer or colder temperatures than the standards.

“Polar Ice,” “Snow Flurry” and “Winter’s Charm,” for instance, can be grown successfully in Zone 6, while “Yuletide” and “Pink Perfection” are two that can handle the tropical heat of Zone 10.

Be sure to select varieties that will thrive in your climate; plant tags and catalog descriptions should provide details about their ideal growing conditions, including the lowest and highest temperatures each can withstand.

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