Camellias offer blossoms while other flowers sleep

The evergreen shrubs bloom in a variety of colors.

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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.

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.

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"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.

About 10 miles east of Descanso Gardens is one of the most respected camellia nurseries in the world, Nuccio's Nurseries in Altadena, Calif. The 66-year-old family enterprise has earned fame for growing, hybridizing, and selling top-quality camellias and azaleas. Founded by two brothers, Julius and Joseph, and now owned and operated by a second generation - brothers Tom and Jim, and their cousin Julius - Nuccio's sells more than 500,000 camellia plants a year.

The family also is busy hybridizing and popularizing new varieties, to the delight of camellia fanciers around the world. This year, among their new introductions is a japonica named Bella Rossa, which has bright red, formal flowers. Camellia fanciers are already praising its virtues because it has very large, beautifully formed flowers in bloom during December and beyond.

Hybridizers work to improve flower forms and growth patterns, and are now trying to breed new colors and fragrance into hybrids. Varieties have emerged during the past 20 years with yellow flowers in sizes and shapes larger than the naturally occurring species, as well as new hybrids with fragrant flowers - predominantly pink - in various forms.

In Japan, where small flowers are prized, hybridizers are creating delicate new varieties with jasmine-like and honey fragrances. According to Tom Nuccio, some of the best are Minoto-no-Haru, Minoto-no-Akebono, and Kato-no-Kaori. Also among his favorites are High Fragrance and Scentuous.

How to grow camellias

In mild climates, select a location sheltered from direct sun or drying winds. Experts recommend northern or eastern exposures, although some types can take more sun. You don't want to place them so morning sun shines on frozen leaves, which causes "burning."

Camellias need well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Roots smother if planted too deep. Tom Nuccio recommends placing the shrub in its hole with the top of the rootball one inch above the surface, to account for soil settling. Camellias need watering, but not too much or too often. They need steady moisture, but the soil shouldn't be wet. They require fertilizing just three times a year, and Nuccio recommends using cottonseed meal or commercial camellia fertilizer, every six to eight weeks during the plant's growing season from April through September.

Growing camellias in containers

Tim Thibault suggests that gardeners in cold climates where camellias can't survive winter should select varieties with lower light and moisture requirements, and grow them in cold greenhouses or conser-vatories. Varieties that should do well include Coral Delight, Taylor's Perfection, Freedom Bell, and Buttons 'n Bows.

"These plants need relatively dry conditions, so it's important not to overwater them," Mr. Thibault emphasizes. "Soil should dry out to two inches below the surface before adding more."

Although they're light feeders, they need fertilizer while they're growing. Thibault suggests using a liquid fertilizer at one-half the recommended strength on Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day.

In warm weather, you can enjoy your camellias in the garden by placing the pots in larger, decorative containers in your garden or on the patio.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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