Thursday, December 6, 2012

The December Garden - Camellia sasanqua in Bloom

Newly planted Camellia sasanqua 'Kanjiro' in bloom, December 2012
Who says that the December garden has to be bare and brown?

Today and over the next few weeks, I plan to post photos from my December garden rich with a variety of colors and textures.

Most striking are the camellias - three that I inherited and two more that I purchased and planted this autumn. The ones that I planted are called Kanjiro and the too-cutely named Pink-a-Boo.

I don't know the names of the varieties that were here when we moved in -- which is too bad, because I would love to know the name of the pink camellia that is now adorned with dozens of flowers and a buzzing crowd of bee admirers.

Unknown pink Camellia with two bees sharing a single blossom, December 2012
The two new ones (not surprisingly) have fewer blooms, but they seem to be settling in nicely. 

The varieties that I planted are both Camellia sasanqua, the virtues of which are described in great detail on the Floridata site. Here are some of the highlights from the Floridata description:

- Can cope with many different soil types.

- Prefers broken shade, but tolerates full sun if well-watered. (Mine are in partial shade with Eastern exposure. They actually are mostly shaded in the winter since the house sort of faces a Northeasterly direction, but they will get quite a lot of sun in the summertime.)

- Surprisingly drought-tolerant once established.

- Generally hardy to at least zone 7, with newer varieties potentially hardy even further north.

- Low-growing varieties can be used as a groundcover on steep hillsides! (I have to confess that this idea never occurred to me.) Taller varieties can be used in mixed hedges or as specimen plants. Mine are in the front foundation planting.

- Small specimens are inexpensive and readily available.

- Virtually pest-free and can survive periods of neglect.

Unknown pink Camellia and bee, December 2012

Sounds like a tough and versatile plant, which I admire.

As far as I know, there are no concerns about it being invasive, which of course can be an issue with exotic plants like Camellia sasanqua, which comes from Japan.

But despite all of these points in its favor -- and despite the fact that the flowers add beautiful color to the winter landscape and presumably provide much-needed food for bees and other insects at a time when little else is blooming (well, besides by English Marigolds), I have not seen a single other camellia while walking around my neighborhood.

I can't understand it.

Do you grow camellias in your garden? If not, is there some reason you avoid them? Or have you just not considered them to this point?

Note that despite Floridata's glowing endorsement and my own happy experiences with Camellias thus far, I do understand that almost every plant has its weaknesses or drawbacks. Clemson University, for instance, offers a more nuanced take on camellias with a description of several diseases and pests that can attack the plants. Yet there are many other plants equally or more susceptible to damage and decline that are widely planted in the Middle Tennessee landscape, and I would argue that Camellias unique attributes - its glossy green evergreen leaves, its long season of beautiful blooms in the fall and winter stretching over weeks or even months, its clear attraction for the bees that so desperately need sources of pollen in our suburban landscape -- all of this should encourage homeowners to give camellias another look when considering new plants for the garden.

Alianthus webworm (Atteva aurea) on Camellia blossom, December 2012

Personally, in my own garden, I have not noticed many problems on the two established camellias. There were some occasional problems with leaf yellowing last year, which I thought might have been due to alkaline soil issues, since I believe camellias prefer more acidic growing conditions. So I added a bit of organic Espoma acidic fertilizer to the soil in the fall and both plants look healthier than ever with far more blooms this year than last.

Camellia sasanqua 'Kanjiro' flower, just starting to open, December 2012

Four last observations on Camellia sasanqua:

1) Freezing weather does not seem to damage those buds that are tightly closed, but temperatures in the 20s (like those we had last months) may kill those flowers that are already blooming or buds that have already partially opened. In our case, the cold snap only lasted a week or so. When the weather warmed up, I just picked off the dead flowers and new ones from undamaged buds soon started blooming again within a few days.

2) As with many other types of flowering plants, it has been my observation that the bees tend to prefer visiting the simple, open and accessible flowers over the highly-ruffled "fancier" types of blooms. This seems to make sense intuitively. If I were a bee, I imagine that I would go straight for the accessible pollen too rather than trying to fight my way through a maze of petals. Yes, I am blatantly anthropomorphizing.

3) There seems to be quite a lot of variation among the camellias in terms of the extent to which dead flowers persist on the plant. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, deadheading flowers is a pet peeve of mine. Therefore, I tend to prefer plants where the old flowers either fall off, are hardly noticeable or even attractive (as with coneflowers, sunflowers, Autumn Joy sedum, etc.) My highly unscientific observation would be that the camellias with simple flowers tend to be a bit better in this regard, with the individual petals falling off and making a pretty carpet on the ground. By contrast, the ones with more complex flowers seem to hang on the plant longer to the point where even I am compelled to do some deadheading. So for this reason - plus out of consideration to the bees - I do think I will try to plant camellia varieties with simpler flowers in the future.

4) Camellias can reportedly live for a very, very long time. There is something nice and noble, I think, in the notion that a gardener could/should seek to leave a legacy for the next generation. Well, there are reportedly camellias living in Europe that are over 230 years old and I'd imagine that there are probably camellias in Japan that are even older than that. So if you plant and nurture a camellia today, you could be "paying it forward" and giving beauty and pleasure not just to the next generation, but to many more generations to come.

Unknown white Camellia blossom, December 2012

Eager to see how these camellias perform in 2013? Want to see the blooms from the one camellia bush that is still just covered with buds (not shown here)? Even the busiest bee can stay in the loop with free email updates.


  1. I'd like to get more camellias, but they're just so expensive! The larger ones anyway... I think your unknown pink may be 'Winter's Star'.

  2. Aaron, you have some beauties, and you're right about camellia's toughness. Pushing limits here in Connecticut. I left a camellia planted in the garden last winter. The Camellia japonica 'Bob Hope' remained vibrant and bloomed in the spring. Here's the link:

  3. In Zone 5, I don't think camelias are an option. However, I do admire yours. And the bees really like them too!

  4. I have six Camellias in my garden, all babies. Bonanza, Mine-No-Yuki, Yuletide, April Tryst, and two Professor Sargent. I love them. Hoping to add another two or ten. ;-) I do have a small infestation of Camellia scale on two of them. Camellias are really grand shrubs, look forward to mine being big and full of blooms.

  5. Beautiful camellias! I have several of them, and try to find new spots for a new one or two every year. Yours are beautiful. I don't understand why camellias are not more widely grown. I suppose because they are not generally available in the spring, when most people go to the garden centers.

  6. Thanks for the comments y'all.

    Randy - I think the camellias were some of the more expensive plants I purchased this fall. You're right about that. I justified the purchase with the notion that at least I was saving money by landscaping my front foundation myself rather than hiring someone to do it.

    Jason - As Lee has shown, camellias may grow further north than expected, but you're right that Zone 5 is probably a little *too* far north. On the other hand, maybe breeders will push the cold hardiness even further.

    Lee - Do let me know if you decide to move forward with that camellia patch! And yes, I admire your experimentation and boundary-testing in the garden.

    Janet - A camellia-lover after my own heart! Do you spray your camellias to treat the scale infestation or do you let nature take its course?

    HolleyGarden - Thank you! I think your explanation about most people shopping for plants in the spring when camellias are either not available or not blooming makes sense. Well, we garden bloggers thus have an obligation to evangelize and let gardeners everywhere know about the virtues of these wonderful plants! (And incidentally, while you probably already know this, since I've only been gardening a couple of years, I was surprised to learn that fall is actually the best time to buy and install plants, at least in hot Southern climes like Middle TN. So perhaps if more people start shopping in the fall, then Camellias will become more popular? A man can dream! :)

    1. Aaron, so far I have let nature take its course. I do amend my soil with worm castings which have some interesting possible benefits in fighting pests.

  7. camellias are now blooming in my neighborhood in new york city. never saw them before.

    1. Thanks for the heads up, Edwards.

      I used to live in NYC myself and don't recall ever seeing camellias there either. Where have you seen them blooming? In a park? Or one of the botanical gardens?

      Good to know that perhaps they are becoming more widely planted!

  8. That's definitely a flowering plant I'd like in my garden. I just have to wonder how hard or easy it is to maintain though.

    1. Hi Pamela,

      Thanks for your comment. Camelia sasanqua is very easy to maintain, IMHO. In fact, I don't do anything to it except pick off some of the dead flowers, trim it back annually if it is outgrowing its space and perhaps give it a little acid fertilizer from time to time. That's it! It rewards me with beautiful glossy evergreen foliage and lovely long-blooming fall-winter flowers :)


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