The Camellia: A Good Reason to Live in Chapel Hill

A luscious bloom adorns this C. japonica ‘Jacks.’ Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

One of the main motives to move to Chapel Hill is that it’s a splendid place to raise and nourish … camellias. With careful planning you can have camellia blooms for fall, late winter and early spring—and I would opine that is one reason to quickly take up gardening.

Not only that, camellias are handsome evergreens that adorn our gardens even when they aren’t in flower. Combining this appreciation with the knowledge that in our area we have Camellia Forest, one of the premier nurseries specializing in camellias, means that there’s absolutely no reason to forgo having a camellia in your yard unless you live in utter darkness.

The first camellias I ever saw were those sold as houseplants in New Jersey in the early 1980s. They were on the small size for a camellia, but what did I know? The only problem with having one as a houseplant was that they disliked temperatures above 60 degrees F., and I’m sure you will agree that this provides for a rather chilly indoor atmosphere during a long winter’s night.

Thirty years ago, when I moved down here, I worked in the garden with Sara Wilson who grew and sold camellias. Consequently, I have a lot of camellias that are now well-established parts of my landscape. She also introduced me to several cultivars that I’m absolutely nutty about—and isn’t experiencing plant euphoria one of the reasons we toil in the soil?

Native to southeastern Asia, camellias have been with us for well over 1,000 years. While there are around (no one is quite sure how many) 250 species, there are only five that we use here in the garden. The first camellia appeared in Europe in 1739, making its way to America in 1797 when the South quickly embraced this shrub. Its nearest relatives here are the Franklinia, a difficult small tree to grow and the increasingly popular Stewartia.

This nameless C. sasanqua shows what the start of blooming looks like in October. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Among the four or five species that concern us as gardeners are the sasanquas and japonicas (as they are known). C. sasanqua, of course, is the camellia that greets us in the fall, whereas C. japonica graces our gardens in the early spring. However, this divide is not that simple as I have one C. japonica that happily (weather permitting) blooms in December along with one C. sasanqua that flowers in February. Another difference between these two species is that C. sasanqua has smaller leaves and smaller blooms than C. japonica.

Then there is the tea camellia, C. sinensis, that has small, rather insignificant flowers, but its significance lies in its leaves. If you have an undying quench to grow your own tea, this is the plant for you. Not only is Camellia Forest Nursery at the forefront for camellia knowledge, the owners have also written the book on growing and processing your own tea, not unreasonably titled Grow Your Own Tea.

Camellia x williamsii are hybrids that you will run across. ‘Taylor’s Perfection’ is one that is popular as it blooms in March and has large flowers. Truly, there is a camellia for everyone provided you do not live in a totally shaded area.

This C. japonica ‘Lavender Prince’ is among the author’s favorites. Photo by Kit Flynn.

While many experts tell us to plant camellias in the spring rather than the fall, Camellia Forest assures us that planting in the fall is also permissible. You want to give the roots time to establish themselves in the soil before the shrub starts concentrating on producing top growth. As all camellias set their buds in May or June, it is inadvisable to prune them during the summer—after all, it doesn’t make much sense cutting off the buds before they have bloomed, now does it?

Despite their reputations for being shade plants, camellias perform best in sunny areas. The japonicas and C. sinensis will require four-to-six hours of sun while sasanquas tolerate even more sun. They all need well-drained soil, regular watering when newly planted and very little fertilizer as camellia burn can be a problem.

Pruning occurs after flowering when they put out a first flush. This is the time you determine basically the size and shape of the shrub. Some get very tall, some get gawky; some remain in a round shape; while others want to imitate the pyramids, albeit on a much smaller scale. Remember that the shape has been predetermined by the shrub, so it’s recommended to let the camellia grow to its full height.

Japonica ‘Berenice Boddy’ is a commanding presence at nearly 15 feet in height. Photo by Kit Flynn.

When choosing a camellia, therefore, you have to determine when it will bloom and how large it will get. Among my japonicas, ‘Berenice Boddy’ is a good 14-15 feet high whereas the slow growing ‘Jacks’ seems to max out at around 8-10 feet. A camellia that wants to be ball-shaped will take up more ground space than a ‘Jacks’ that is triangular in form.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, I have a gorgeous camellia that insists on blooming in December when we can get a wave of cold weather. Twenty-eight degrees will not affect the blooms, but a prolonged cold snap around 23 degrees will burn the flowers. January, sometimes a dreary month, provides little relief, so my recommendation is to buy japonicas that bloom in February or March and sasanquas that bloom in October or November.

Hence, it’s important to know when your particular cultivar wants to bloom. I’ve never been able to convince my December-blooming japonica to delay flowering to a more suitable time.

Just as there are various colors available, there are also various floral shapes, so you might prefer one over the other. Therefore, I do recommend doing your research before you buy as a camellia will be a major contribution to your garden, worth the time and effort you put in to growing it. As there are over 3,000 cultivars, it probably is safe to say that there is a camellia that will satisfy almost all gardeners.

Take advantage of the wonderful gardening opportunities here in the Triangle; plant a camellia. I promise you that you won’t regret it, proving to one and all that Chapel Hill is a splendid place in which to live.

Editor’s Note: With this week’s column, TLR breaks with AP style on the use of double vs. single quotation marks, having already broken with AP on the use of italics for the Latin names of plants. Botanists use single quotation marks around cultivar names. For news articles, however, TLR will continue the use of AP style for the occasional references to plants. The determination is that a column devoted to botanical subjects utilizes the names so frequently that the standard botanical formats will be more visually recognizable to readers.

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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