Blossom XLIX: Camellia sasanqua

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What a delight to see bright flowers open on our evergreen Camellia shrubs during autumn, just as the rest of the garden fades and we prepare for winter.  You may have noticed bright Camellias blooming in October through January and wondered about these beautiful rose-like flowers in shades of red, pink and white.

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A relative of the tea plant, autumn blooming Asian Camellias are hardy in Zones 6b-9.  Like the spring blooming Camellia japonica, they prefer moist, acidic soil.

When the first Camellias were brought to Europe and North America from Asia, they were cultivated in glass houses, to protect them from winter temperatures, ice and snow.  Eventually, gardeners began to experiment with growing them out of doors in the garden, and learned that we can grow Camellias successfully in Zone 7 and warmer, without any special protection.  Providing a sheltered spot, mulch, or wrapping them against winter winds allows gardeners to grow them successfully in even colder climates.

Fall blooming Camellias will tolerate full to partial sun, under the dappled shade of larger trees.  They can take more sun than the C. japonicas appreciate.  Camellias may be used as specimen plants, hedges, in mixed borders, or as large foundation shrubs.  Different cultivars will grow to different proportions, and many will grow into small trees when left unpruned.

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Proper pruning is very good for Camellias.  By carefully removing branches here and there, you can open them up to greater light and air circulation.  This helps encourage blooming and also protects from some fungal diseases that sometimes attack overgrown Camellias.  Good air circulation and care will prevent disease problems and insect damage is rare.

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Never shear Camellias like a hedge.  Prune within a few weeks after they finish blooming to avoid cutting away the next season’s flower buds.  Aim to prune only enough to enhance the shrub’s beauty, or control its size, so the pruning isn’t obvious.  It is best to cut a branch all the way back to where it grows out of another branch.  Clipping a branch in the middle will stimulate more new growth from the nodes below your cut.

Camellias keep their glossy green leaves year-round, adding structure and screening in the garden throughout the year.  Pollinators appreciate this source of nectar when little else is in bloom, and birds find shelter in their branches.  Many gardeners cut a few branches for a vase, or float Camellia blossoms in a bowl.

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Newly planted shrubs will need protection from deer for the first few years.  Deer may graze both leaves and flower buds, but the shrub will generally survive.  Use deer fencing, Milorganite, or repellant sprays to protect Camellias as they establish.  Since Milorganite is an organic nitrogen fertilizer, regular use will actually enhance the color and bloom of Camellia shrubs, while helping to keep deer away from them.

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Camellia, “Jingle Bells” December 2016

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Many Camellia varieties are available now at local nurseries.  You can choose from several different colors and flower forms,  finding a cultivar that will meet your needs for mature shape and size.

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Camellia December 2017

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Varieties like C. ‘Yuletide’  and C. ‘Jingle Bells‘ are especially prized for their red flowers each December.  Bees and late butterflies will be thrilled to find them when there is little other nectar available to them. Camellia flowers may turn brown during a cold snap, but buds will continue to open over many weeks, even during wintery weather.

Then, by very early spring, the first of the Camellia japonica varieties will begin to bloom.

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Camellia November 2017

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Plant Camellia shrubs with confidence that you are making a good investment.  They will reward you with beautiful flowers, when little else will bloom, for many decades to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Blossom XLVIII:  Verbena
Blossom XLVII:  Cornleaf Iris
Blossom XLVI: Snowdrops and Iris
Blossom XLV:  First Snowdrops
Blossom XLIV: Brilliant Hibiscus
Blossom XLIII: Verbena
Blossom XLII: Carrots in Bloom

 

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

21 responses to “Blossom XLIX: Camellia sasanqua

  1. Monica MacAdams

    Thx so much! Very informative. Will try to find Milorganite on line.

  2. How lovely they grow in winter in zones 6 thru 9 (and our 7!)
    I like the idea of Yuletide or jingle bells for flowers that bloom in December – and sounds win-win-win

    • When we grew Camellias, ‘Yuletide’ was our most prolific of the sasanqua camellias. It bloomed no matter what. If I remember correctly, all of the cultivars that we grew (in production) bloomed late, just because that was when there were fewer other flowers blooming. (In our region, there is always some sort of floral color available, so winter bloomers are not such a rare commodity.) Yuletide has a nice upright growth habit, which some might find to be boring, but can be an asset where it works as minor hedging. Old specimens can get quite large. ‘Jingle Bells’ is a bit floppier, which is what most of us expect Camellia sasanqua to look like. Although I still prefer the flowers of Camellia japonica, the Camellia sasanqua really are more prolific.

      • I like the novely of flowers when little else is blooming. The spring blooming Camellias have exquisite flowers, but I pay them less attention because there is so much floral competition from the early bulbs and Magnolias. Thanks, Tony. Interesting to know that have been growing these same Camellias in your region. C. ‘Yuletide’ is usually a late November bloomer here, or early December. But it is always prolific!

        • Camellias are not likely as popular here as they are in the Southeast, but are somewhat popular. I suspect that Camellia japonica was popularized back when many of the gardeners of the Santa Clara Valley were of Japanese descent. Camellia sasanqua was probably around about as long, but only became popular in the 1980s or so. Camellia reticulata is still rare. We grew only a few, but they were more than we could sell.

          • It makes sense that Asian immigrants to CA would want to bring their beautiful Camellias with them. Now you’ve gone and done it, Tony. I wasn’t aware of Camellia reticulata until I saw this note from you, and so I looked it up. They are gorgeous!!! Now I want to try to find one (or more….) and see how they grow here in our area. I wonder why they didn’t sell for you? I don’t recall ever coming across one here, and I’m a ‘tag reader’ at a nursery….

            • Camellia japonica is popular because it does not need much attention. Camellia reticulata needs occasional pruning so that the long limber stems to not become a floppy tangled mess, and so that they do not get too heavy for the weak roots to support. Even mature plants need to be staked, or at least pruned back aggressively every few years, to compensate for weak rooting. Floral buds of many cultivars need to be culled to concentrate resourced into fewer big blooms rather than into many buds that will likely fall off before they bloom. Flowers are so heavy that some face downward, and they do not last for very long. If you don’t mind all the work, they are spectacular!

              • I have some white fall blooming Camellias with the habit you describe. They grow in a mixed shrub border, and the long branches weave their way through other trunks. The flowers are relatively small, but are numerous, and sparkle in the shade. Maybe I should prune the branches back after bloom finishes….. They do flop, and I mulch their exposed roots with fresh compost every year or so. I assume they are susanquas..?

                • Camellia sasanqua is more closely related to Camellia reticulata than Camellia japonica is, even though it has much smaller flowers. There are a few hybrids between the two, but none that I know of that are white. Camellia sasanqua cultivars are quite variable, with some that are strictly upright like ‘Yuletide’, and others that are quite limber and rampant like ‘Setsugekka’. If yours are old plants that predate modern cultivars, and the flowers have frizzy yellow staminate centers, they might be traditional ‘Setsugekka’ Camellia sasanqua. We happen to have at least two at work that are espaliered. (They are excellent for espaliers.) Camellia sasanqua is easier to work with than Camellia reticulata is, and is more tolerant to pruning. There is no problem with weaving the stems back into the other shrubbery for a year or two, but they can eventually get too congested. It is better to prune them to promote somewhat shrubbier and self supporting growth. Camellia sasanqua should be more stable, with stronger roots than Camellia reticulata, but might need to be lightened if you notice that they are not supporting their own weight.

      • wow -thanks for the info
        🙂

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