Camellias offer blossoms while other flowers sleep
The evergreen shrubs bloom in a variety of colors.
Winter gardening may seem an oxymoron to people who live in cold climates, but to fortunate gardeners who live in Sunbelt states, it's possible to enjoy lovely flowering landscapes while much of the nation shivers.Skip to next paragraph
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Camellias are among the most popular floral landscape plants in the warm Southern and Western parts of the United States, because they produce a profusion of flowers in late fall and winter.
These graceful evergreen shrubs, in a variety of shapes and sizes, produce masses of white, pink, red, striped, or variegated flowers. Depending on the variety, they start flowering in September or October, and can produce lovely blossoms into April or May. What makes them even more appealing is their ease of growth - if certain horticultural requirements are met.
"Camellias are such easy landscape plants," says Tim Thibault, curator at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., site of the largest camellia forest in North America. "Even people in colder climates can enjoy them, because they make great container plants."
Native to eastern and southern Asia, camellias are evergreen shrubs or small trees that thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 through 9. Newer, cold-hardy camellias can be grown outdoors in Zone 6.
Probably the most widely used type of camellia is Camellia sinensis, commonly called "tea." All tea comes from the leaves and buds of this camellia. Better known to gardeners is the C. japonica. It has varieties that bloom early-, mid-, and late-season in a number of sizes and with a variety of flower forms and colors.
By selecting varieties that bloom in different months, it's possible to enjoy flowers from October through May in warm states. Also popular but not quite as hardy as C. japonica is C. Sasanqua, which produces delicate single, semidouble, or double flowers in profusion in fall and early winter. These shrubs naturally arch and can be trained as espaliers, hedges, or bonsai.
Some other noteworthy camellia types are C. reticulata, tall shrubs with very large flowers; C. chrysantha, a species with small, golden flowers that hybridizers use to introduce yellow into commercial varieties; and C. lutchuensis, a species with small, fragrant flowers.
Outdoors, camellias grow best in sheltered locations with protection from hot sun and strong winds. Their shallow roots are both sun- and cold-sensitive, so the plants are at their best when layers of organic mulch protect their roots. Because they grow only 10 percent per year, camellias are excellent container plants, which makes it possible for people in the Midwest or Northeast to enjoy these beauties in home greenhouses.
At Descanso Gardens, approximately 50,000 camellia shrubs thrive in a 35-acre forest of coast live oak trees. First started in 1937 by Manchester Boddy as a commercial camellia nursery, Descanso Gardens is now a 160-acre public botanic and display garden. Every year, close to 250,000 visitors come to enjoy the colorful woodland beauty of stately camellias, some soaring as high as 30 feet.