All Hail to Our Camellias

Camellia ‘Snow Flurry.’ Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

If in the middle of July, you find yourself wondering why you ever chose to live in gardening zone 7, just ponder the camellia. Fifty years ago, when I lived up North, I well remember The New York Times promoting the camellia as a houseplant. Of course, this example of horticultural dementia did not last long as camellias are shrubs that relish temperatures far lower than those we maintain in our houses.

Gardens require structure, something equivalent to our backbones. To achieve this structure, we use shrubs and trees of various sizes – and this is where the camellia comes into play. Camellias are glossy creatures that maintain their leaf structure throughout the year. However, the best thing about camellias is their long bloom cycle at a time of year when there isn’t much floral competition.

Generally speaking, we divide camellias into two groups: the sasanquas and the japonicas. Yes, there are other species, including C. sinensis, the tea camellia and the late blooming C. reticulata, but when we are looking at camellias, we are usually thinking of the sasanquas and the japonicas.

The fall-blooming sasanquas have smaller leaves and blooms than the spring-blooming japonicas – however, bear in mind that there is a great deal of overlap. I have early blooming japonicas that easily coincide with the sasanquas.

When shopping for camellias, it’s important to know when a particular specimen blooms. I have one early-blooming japonica, ‘Debutante’ that is magnificent if we don’t receive a hard freeze in December, an iffy proposition at best. If the freeze hits at the right time, the buds will freeze, thereby delaying their bloom cycle. If the freeze surfaces in the middle of the bloom period, brown flowers are the result.

The first camellias to bloom in my garden arrive in the middle of October. Living up to its name, ‘Snow Flurry’ is a prolific mass of small white blooms. Not only does it herald the cooler weather of fall, it has a long bloom cycle lasting well over two months.

‘Berenice Boddy’ is a japonica that is the mother to many of our cultivars, including many in the April series. A February bloomer, I relish her ability to spawn various new cultivars of camellias. The two late blooming camellias, ‘Jacks’ and ‘Lavender Prince’ tell me that spring is on the way. For a perfectly shaped camellia flower, it’s hard to beat ‘Jacks’ whereas ‘Lavender Prince’, the last camellia to bloom in my garden, makes a dynamite statement.

Camellia ‘Jacks.’ Photo by Kit Flynn.

Fortunately, here in Chapel Hill, we have Camellia Forest, a nursery that specializes in camellias and has introduced many cultivars, including the April series, to the horticultural world. Open throughout the year on Saturdays and Sundays, this nursery can answer all your questions pertaining to camellias.

Here are some of my suggestions when shopping for camellias:

  • Determine when you want camellia blooms in your garden. We’d all like January blossoms but realize that January is our coldest month, a fact that narrows down your chances of having flowers rather than brown blooms. Camellias bloom from October to the end of March, even into April so the choice is yours;
  • Determine what size you can accommodate in your garden. Some camellias easily reach 15 feet or more in the garden so be sure to accommodate for that amount of space. Other camellias, like ‘Jacks’, are slow growing, taking a decade to reach 6 feet;
  • Determine what color you prefer. Camellias come in a wide pallette of colors ranging from white to pink to the red found in ‘Yuletide.’ Do you prefer the speckled red color of ‘Bobby Fain’ to the all red of ‘Black Tie?’ The choice is up to you;
  • Last, determine what size camellia you’d like to start out with. Generally, the sizes are one-year, two-year or three-to-four-year pots.

Camellias live for a long time. Plant one now and chances are good that it will outlive you so it behooves you to do some research first. Not only does Camellia Forest have a huge selection of camellias, it also has an informative website. If you have the urge to make your own tea from C. sinensis, this is your place. The flowers are unassuming but if you follow the instructions, you can brew your tea from your own camellia.

All my camellias receive a healthy dose of sunlight. What they all need is well-draining soil so choose your site carefully. I have had some trouble with scale infestation, while in the late spring after flowering a few of them display leaf gall, a relatively harmless, albeit unsightly, fungal infliction on the leaves. I simply cut off the affected places, adding them to the outgoing garden refuse bin.

Here in the Triangle, we aim to have flowers in the garden 12 months of the year. While January makes this goal a bit illusory, with the help of a wise selection of camellias, you can have blooms lasting throughout most of the winter. But whatever you do, please don’t try growing them as houseplants.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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