Teacher’s Pets

C. Japonica 'Lavender Prince.' Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

Thirty years ago, I began my long love affair with camellias. Moving down from the North, I was stunned to see handsome glossy shrubs produce what seemed like an endless supply of blooms throughout the winter. As I had an endless garden palate to paint, I began aggressively to accumulate camellias.

There are a lot of camellia species – the scientific community cannot agree on how many – but the number seems to range from 80-300. However, the ones you will see mostly in the Triangle are C. sasanqua that blooms in the fall, C. japonica that blooms in the spring, C. sinensis that provides our tea and C. reticulata that is sometimes found in nurseries. We are also fortunate to have one of the premier camellia nurseries here, Camellia Forest (camforest.com).

There are many cultivars and that’s where the problem lies as it’s important to do research before purchasing. While C. sasanqua and C. japonica theoretically bloom at different times, there is a lot of overlap. An early blooming japonica can bear flowers easily zapped by a cold snap in December, a time when the sasanquas are beginning to fade. Japonicas that bloom in February have a much easier time of it so it’s necessary to discern when a particular camellia wants to bloom.

Camellias also come in different sizes and shapes. Some really are small trees while others never venture beyond the shrub stage. You must eyeball the area where you want to place your camellia and decide how large a camellia that area can accommodate.

Of all my camellias, I have four that have captured my heart (OK, an exaggeration but I am writing this article on Valentine’s Day). The one I eagerly anticipate this time of year is C. japonica ‘Jacks’ for its perfectly symmetrical large flowers. Many camellias bear rather sloppy blooms – their beauty lies in their profusion of flowers rather than in the loveliness of each individual blossom.

‘Jacks’ is very slow growing. After being in the ground for over eight years, none of mine are over 6 feet tall. Cone-shaped, this camellia can fit into many corners while its bloom cycle occurs at the time of year that I’m typically gardening, enabling me to feast my eyes. Lasting a good 6-8 weeks, the flowers are to my mind absolutely perfect.

C. japonica ‘Jacks.’ Photo by Kit Flynn.

Following ‘Jacks,’ the japonica ‘Lavender Prince’ begins to bloom in the middle of March, ending just when the roses are ready to take off. Bearing by far the largest blossoms of any camellia in my yard, ‘Lavender Prince’ stops traffic, easily living up to its royal name. This is a large camellia so place it where it can have a starring role when it’s in bloom.

The last japonica that I dearly love is ‘Berenice Boddy,’ the mother of so many of our cultivars, including Camellia Forest’s April Series. This California girl made her appearance in 1947, bears lovely pink flowers, and while she doesn’t put on the same show as ‘Lavender Prince’ and ‘Jacks,’ her show is seemingly endless, going on and on. She’s a large girl, ranging over 16 feet in height.

In the late summer I turn my eyes to C. x ‘Snow Flurry’ as this is the first of the early fall camellias to cast forth its flowers, assuring me that our long, hot, humid summer will eventually end. The flowers are not huge but they are so profuse that they live up to their name – and they last for a good solid two months. This camellia is shrub shaped, wanting to grow into a ball-like structure.

Camellias do well in light but appreciate some shelter from the afternoon sun. After their bloom cycle, they will put out a flush of new growth and this is the time to lightly prune them if necessary. You might also notice the infamous Camellia Leaf Gall, a disfiguring leaf fungus that exists in the soil and is blown up on the camellias by wind. My sasanquas seem to be more prone to develop this condition than my japonicas but fear not: As unsightly as it is, it won’t harm your camellia. I cut it off, catching it so it doesn’t settle back into the soil.

Adding camellias to our gardens is an easy thing to do. Just do a little research to determine what size you want, when you want it to bloom, what color of flowers you want and go from there. If you want to brew your own tea from C. sinensis, you’re in luck as Camellia Forest has instructions on its website.

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 howdoesyourgardengrow@icloud.com.

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