The lush and irresistable blossoms of Camellias have beguiled southern landscapes for over 100 years. These broad-leaved evergreen large shrubs or small trees have been the favorites of Camellia fanciers long enough for there to be hundreds of named cultivars of the principal ornamental types. Flowers range in color from white through palest pinks to deep red and in form from simple single to double, rose, peony, etc. and they include every possible combination in between.
While there are more than 200 species of the genus Camellia in its native ranges of Asia, only a few species have primarily been grown in the southeastern US. Two popular species were grown for ornamental value and one for culinary purposes, and they all exhibit a range of bloom time and hardiness. Camellia japonica, the Common Camellia, blooms in late winter and early spring with large, deeply colored blossoms and a dense slightly more coarse habit than the others. Camellia sasanqua, Sasanqua Camellia, blooms in the late fall and early winter with somewhat smaller flowers and a more refined and open habit. Camellia sinensis, the Tea Plant, blooms in early fall with small white flowers and emerald green foliage which is the source of tea buds and leaves, important for one of the favorite beverages of the southeastern US.
Common Camellia is perhaps the least hardy of these plants with some cultivars damaged at about 10F, Sasanqua is more hardy, withstanding temperatures in the range of 5F and the Tea Plant is even hardier still, taking temperatures as low as 0F. But many of the hardiest Camellias are species that have never become common in American gardens. One example is Camellia oleifera, the Tea-Oil Camellia, which is a lovely white to pale pink flowered form that is significantly more hardy than Sasanquas with tolerance to minus 10F.
Hardiness has restricted Camellia culture to the southern half of the US and a narrow belt along the coasts. Because of its lovely evergreen character and spectacular flowers, improved hardiness has long been a goal for Camellia breeders. Their hybridization programs have focused very heavily on this trait, particularly since the exceptionally cold winters in the early 80's. By cross-breeding Sasanquas and Common Camellias with Tea-Oil Camellias and other lesser-known species, breeders have achieved excellent hardiness in a new set of hybrids, as well as produced new cultivars with especially wonderful fragrance.
Some of these excellent new Camellias from the program at the U.S. National Arboretum include: 'Fragrant Pink' and 'Cinnamon Cindy', bred for improved fragrance combined with good hardiness in demure flowers-both are shades of pastel pink and bloom in late winter and early spring; 'Winter Rose' is a fall-blooming, shell-pink flowered, slow growing type with very dark green foliage; 'Snow Flurry' is more rapid growing with large white, peony-form blossoms; 'Polar Ice' is an upright form with very large, white, anemone form blooms in late fall;'Frost Prince' and 'Frost Princess' are two of the earlier hybrids from the National Arboretum with improved hardiness but the later cultivars described above have proved to be even more hardy. Look for these new cultivars at nurseries working with Camellias.
Camellia culture is similar to Azaleas and Rhododendrons in that they thrive in moist, well-drained, slightly acid soils in partial shade. However, most Camellias will do well in full summer sun after a period of acclimation and will probably flower more prolifically in full sun. However, foliage 'scorch' (yellowing and bronzing of the foliage) can occur in winter when leaves are exposed to bright sun on cold days. 'Scorch' can be prevented by siting plants where they receive more shade in January and February. This can be acheived without losing full summer sun by taking advantage of the lower angle of the sun in winter.
Camellias can be propagated from softwood cuttings rooted under mist or from seed (which requires no pre-treatment). Grafting desirable scion wood onto large root stock is not only successful but will speed early growth and promote early flowering of young plants.
All of the Camellias discussed herein will be hardy in coastal regions. All but the Common Camellia will be reliably hardy in Piedmont areas except in the most extreme of winters, or if an early severe cold snap follows on the heels of a very warm fall. Common Camellia will be reliably hardy in most areas of the Piedmont in most years, but hard winters will result in damaged flowers and some foliar burn. Tea-Oil Camellia and the new hybrids should be reliably hardy from the coast through the Piedmont and up into many parts of the mountains except when the worst winters and early severe weather will cause plant damage.
At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), a broad range of different Camellias bloom from October through May. Come wander the grounds to find these colorfully exotic treasures tucked amid the sturdier trees and shrubs of the Arboretum's gardens.