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US National Arboretum


Camellias: Expanding Their Territory

image of Camellia Winter's Fire Do you have a camellia in your garden? Regrettably, the answer is often “no.” Considering their many virtues and how undemanding they are, perhaps you should ask yourself “why not?” It’s time to get to know these wonderful shrubs and dispel some of the myths surrounding them.  

There are perhaps as many as 250 species of Camellia, all native to eastern Asia, but only a small handful of these are important economically or horticulturally. Most important economically is Camellia sinensis, the leaves of which are the source of tea. Also important economically is Camellia oleifera, the seeds of which are processed into oil for cooking and cosmetics.

The spring-blooming Camellia japonica (USDA Hardiness Zone 7 – 9) is considered the classic flower icon made famous in the southern United States. Its prized flowers can be up to 5” image of Camellia Winters Hope wide and bloom from late winter to early spring. It has been cultivated for hundreds of years in Asia, and there are many thousands of varieties and cultivars in a wide array of flower forms and colors. Unfortunately, for those living outside of the “camellia belt” of the southern U.S., C. japonica is not reliably cold-hardy.

The fall-blooming Camellia sasanqua (USDA Hardiness Zone 7 - 9) is also an important species of camellia. The flowers are not quite as large and showy as those of Camellia japonica, but the profusion of flowers produced on one plant can be very beautiful. Additionally, C. sasanqua shrubs are more sun tolerant than C. japonica and are slightly more cold hardy.

image of Camellia Winters Interlude

The two most common myths about camellias are 1) that they are very fussy and difficult to grow and 2) that only people living in very mild climates can grow them. Neither idea is true. Given a well-chosen site, camellias are exceptionally care-free plants. And, thanks to the large number of new cold-hardy hybrids that have been released in recent years, people living as far north as coastal New England and parts of the Midwest can now grow camellias with confidence that they will survive the winter.  

image of Camellia Winters Star Growing conditions can make the difference in survival rates for these great shrubs and must be chosen carefully. Camellias prefer light shade and a slightly acid, rich, well- drained soil, very similar to azaleas and rhododendrons. Spring planting, rather than fall, is recommended for northern areas because it gives the plant more time to get established before hard freezes. Watering regularly and deeply is vital in the first summer after planting. In colder areas, wind protection and winter shade helps reduce cold damage. Fertilizing is not necessary, but image of Camellia Polar Ice a light application in springtime will increase growth. Pruning is also rarely needed as most plants develop an attractive shape without pruning. If it is deemed necessary, pruning should be done just after blooming to avoid removing next year’s flower buds.  

image of Camellia Winters Fire The new cold hardy camellias are the result of breeding programs that have crossed different species together. Two exceptionally cold winters in a row, 1976 - 1977 and 1977 - 1978 took a devastating toll on the camellia collection here at the National Arboretum. Out of 956 shrubs, only a couple dozen survived. One survivor in particular, a specimen of Camellia oleifera (USDA Hardiness Zone 6) now named 'LuShan Snow', was utilized in the breeding program of Dr. William Ackerman to create many of these new hybrids, including the wonderful 'Winter' image of Camellia LuShan Snow series. All of these camellias have beautiful, lustrous, dark green evergreen leaves and an abundance of flowers in shades of white, pink, and red. With just a couple of well-chosen shrubs, it is possible to have blooms in your landscape from October through March.

Come stroll through the arboretum’s camellia collection this winter and see what it has to offer your garden. More information about some of the fall-blooming introductions can be found here and here; or, in Dr. Ackerman’s book Growing Camellia’s in Cold Climates (Noble House, 2002).  

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Last Updated   January 16, 2007 5:11 PM