Nancy Brachey

Don’t let your winter be flowerless

I feel like winter has me firmly in its cold grip. People from up North who know real winter will probably laugh at that. Still, for Southerners, many days this fall have felt more like winter than autumn.

But there is compensation in the blooms that make the Piedmont landscape colorful on even the grayest days.

Camellias were made for this.

The best evergreen plant for a semi-shady Piedmont landscape, camellias bring loads of assets with them: lovely flowers, beautiful evergreen foliage and a nice shape.

This comes to mind because a certain camellia named Debutante growing beside my house put out fresh blooms this week. Now that would not be a news-making event except for the fact that the plant, now about 35 years old, was cut to the ground a few years back. That drastic step occurred during extensive renovations to the house’s exterior. I thought it was gone for sure, but slowly, new growth began to push up and develop into a nicely shaped evergreen camellia. I had been waiting for a bloom, and sure enough, it finally produced fine pink flowers this week.

I tell you this because some people have the notion that camellias are delicate, fussy and difficult to manage. They are not. They are no more difficult than a holly and much more rewarding.

With one camellia plant, your reward is great. With more, it is fantastic. That is because some camellias bloom in autumn, others in early to mid-winter, and still more in late winter to early spring. With proper selection, you can keep the show going from October to March.

This is worth the effort. Often people choose their camellias based on the shape and color of a particular flower. That is a good reason to make your first selection. But after that, think about the bloom season and extend it with a different one, either earlier or later. Look at the tag on the plant, and it should tell you whether that plant is early, mid-season or late, which refers to bloom time.

Two major kinds of camellias are best suited for us; both are winter-flowering. They are Camellia sasanqua, which blooms fall into early winter and Camellia japonica, for winter into early spring. Most camellias prosper in a semi-shady environment of filtered sunlight in summer – the kind of light that breaks through the canopies of trees.

The sasanquas also will grow in open sunshine, provided it is not a real hot spot that gets summer afternoon sun. The winter-flowering camellias should go in a spot where they are not hit by morning sun in the winter, because that can damage the flowers on very cold days.

They are a bit particular about soil. Having arisen in the acidic soil of Eastern Asia, particularly China and Japan, they require it here. And one reason many plants of that part of the world prosper here is the similarity of soil and climate. Our soil is mostly acidic, and the temperature is mostly right. Sometimes, a very deep freeze will turn blooms brown, but savvy gardeners will learn quickly to believe the weather forecast and pick those flowers and bring them indoors before nightfall.

You can plant camellias now and through the winter. The best way is to look at them in the garden centers. This will help you see which forms and colors appeal to you

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