Hardy types of beloved camellias will grow here
By: By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger
It’s camellia time in Tennessee!
Huh? Did he say Tennessee? Surely he meant South Carolina or Florida.
Almost everyone who hears the word camellia thinks immediately of the almost tropical kinds that flourish only far to our south. Go to Charleston or Savannah anytime between November and April and you will feast on huge camellia trees up to 25 feet tall loaded with specimen blooms up to five inches or more across.
Such a show draws tourists from the frigid and frozen north to enjoy the winter color exhibition, while their home grounds are locked in snow and ice.
There are, however, camellias that will grow — even thrive — here and farther north. While the traditional large flowered camellias, which are Camellia japonica (from Japan originally), are too tender to stand our winters, there is a series of relatively new ones that are hybrids built largely from Camellia oleifera. That is a more winter hardy species that will take zone 6 winters.
The resulting varieties from this hybridization do not provide the spectacular blooms of the Japonica types, but they are not to be sneezed at either. The big advantage in our climate is their habit of blooming in late fall or winter, when there is otherwise a dearth of woody plant blossom about.
As a matter of fact, we have a pink one, variety “Winter’s Charm,” with 3-inch pink peony-form semi-double blooms that are showy as we speak. It is sited in a mixed border at our place, where, in the background, it provides glossy green leaves year-round.
Then, just as bloom fades away in that border in November, the camellia comes into its own and cranks up the pink show.
The new hardy camellias include varieties “Polar Ice” and “Snow Flurry,” which are, as you would imagine, white and other pinks: “Winter’s Dream,” “Winter’s Star” and “Winter’s Fire.” All are fall and winter blooming.
Other new hardy hybrids are coming on the market with regularity. It is only a matter of time before breeders bring hardiness and large flowers together.
Camellias require the same growing conditions as azaleas; that is, good friable soil with an admixture of grit and peat and excellent drainage. Once those basic requirements are met, growing camellias is not much problem.
The biggest problem is well before the planting stage; it is at the market. Retailers have a habit of grouping the hardy hybrids in with other varieties. Be sure you have one of the hardy types.
At the corner of Volunteer Drive and East Blythe Street is the largest camellia in town. One of the hardy whites, now some 10 years old, is sited in pure red clay atop a blaring concrete retaining wall.
It has never been watered, and is as lush and green as the proverbial gourd. Just now coming into bloom, it will throw hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blooms from its 8-foot-wide bush between now and mid-January, barring extreme weather.
While I would never recommend treating a camellia like that one has been treated, success speaks for itself.
Ann Looney has two or three specimens of hardy camellias that are almost as wide as that one and taller. Hers, in shaded and protected sites, have stretched taller than wide and are nothing short of spectacular when in bloom.
Most of the hardy types of camellias are now in bloom in nurseries, and there’s nothing wrong with planting before severe weather.
If you wait until spring, you may be out of the mood and, in any case, the shrubs will be out of bloom and you will be unable to see what the flowers look like.
Besides, you may die before spring and the bush wouldn’t get planted at all.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger on 12.11.07
Garden Path, Jimmy Williams