All About Camellias

Camellia japonica 'Silver Waves'

Camellia japonica ‘Silver Waves’

There is no better time to pick out camellias than in January and February, when they are in bloom. Camellias are the stalwart shrubs of the shade garden. They are dependable and relatively low maintenance, requiring pruning only once a year when flowers fade.
There are two common types of camellia: sasanqua and japonica. Sasanqua camellias generally have flat, single-tiered or semi-double flowers and small leaves whereas japonicas have rose-like, multilayered flowers and larger leaves. Sasanqua camellias are especially suited to growing on espaliers, while japonicas make a tall, handsome evergreen hedge.
The best place to view camellias is at Descanso Gardens in La Canada. The largest camellia collection in North America is on display there beneath a forest of oak trees.
There is no more enduring horticultural experience than to stroll among the 50,000 camellia specimens growing under coast live oaks at Descanso. Horticulture, by definition, is the manipulation of plants for human pleasure, and all of the specimens in this camellia-oak menage were planted by human hands.
Not far from the Descanso Gardens, in Altadena, is Nuccio’s Nursery, which is probably the largest camellia nursery in the world, selling more than half a million plants per year. Many unusual hybrids can be found at Nuccio’s, including small-flowered and scented varieties.
Once you have situated your camellia in a sun-protected location, make sure the soil is well-drained. As an insurance measure, plant with the top of the root ball one inch above grade to protect against standing water around the roots. Fertilize with cottonseed meal three times during the growing season: on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
Even if you purchase camellias now, there is no rush to put them in the ground. Camellias are slow growers and can be kept in containers without difficulty. Just remember that camellias prefer their soil on the dry side. Water your containerized camellias when the soil is dry at a 2-inch depth.
It is curious to note that the arrival of the first camellia to these shores occurred by chance. A nurseryman wanted to see if it was possible to grow tea in America and ordered a tea plant from Asia. It happens that tea leaves are harvested from the Chinese camellia (Camellia sinensis). Instead of sending a tea plant, however, the ornamental Japanese camellia was sent by mistake. Admired for its beautiful flowers, it quickly became a garden favorite.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Many varieties of bare root trees and roses should already be available in nurseries and these are less expensive than container grown stock. To plant a bare root tree or rose bush, dig a hole that is the same depth and twice the diameter of the plant’s root mass. Mound a cone of soil in the hole and pack it firm; the top of the cone should reach ground level. Splay out the roots of your bare root plant and lay them over the cone. Backfill with native soil and compost; the compost should not make up more than one-third of the backfill.
Make sure to compact the backfill as you go. When your hole is almost full, water thoroughly to give the soil a chance to settle and then add more backfill until the hole is full.

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