Familiar to many experienced gardeners and southern-state denizens, Camellias are a wonderful addition to our “off-season” gardens here in the mid-Atlantic. Not many shrubs would dare to bloom in the shortening days of November or the cold, bleary days of February. Over the past several decades, multiple new varieties and hybrids have been tested and introduced for better cold-hardiness.
Over the course of the year, we bring in two big shipments of Camellias from a specialty grower that include spring-bloomers and fall-bloomers. Shades of pink, reddish-pink and white predominate in the Camellia world, but a few that could pass for red or the palest of yellows are also in the mix; plus, you can try some of the fun multi-toned varieties that have marbling, picotees or stripes of different colors on the same flower.
Not known as a group for being fragrant, Camellias can surprise you when you walk amongst mature shrubs in full flower; the U.S. National Arboretum has a fine collection of hardy Camellias that, when visited around Thanksgiving, will certainly perfume the woods. (It seems to me that the fall-bloomers have more fragrant members than the spring group.) Brookside Gardens is another good venue to check out varieties and walk the gardens for inspiration.
As with many shrubs, caring for Camellias is fairly simple, provided you start off with meeting their basic needs: partial shade (some small-leaved types tolerate sun, but can still be burned and stressed), moist but well-drained soil, and protection from strong winds to minimize leaf burn in harsh winters.
If you have problems with deer, they are not unpalatable, so protection with netting or repellent sprays would be necessary. A standard acid-lover nutrient mix like Holly-tone once or twice a year is sufficient, and they are amenable to occasional pruning to control shape or size.
Nice companion plants for those early-blooming Camellias include Hellebores, Pieris, colorful shrub Dogwoods (red, orange and yellow-twig forms), shade-tolerant conifers for a textural contrast (like dwarf Hemlock, Plum Yew or False Arborvitae) and Witchhazel, Winterhazel, Mahonia and Daphne for more fragrances.
Posted By: Miri Talabac, Behnkes Woody Plant Buyer/Manager