University City

A different kind of tea party for University City

Sasanqua camellias brighten the dreary darkness of December with delightful white and soft red blossoms, at a time when not much else is blooming in the garden.

They don’t require pruning to keep an appealing shape, and their glossy evergreen leaves look good in all seasons.

What’s not to like?

The doyenne of Charlotte gardening herself, the Charlotte Observer’s Nancy Brachey, calls sasanquas “choice plants that will enhance any landscape.”

There’s nothing wrong with standard camellias, of course. With their large flowers and early spring blooms, they remain a Southern classic. But winter’s lesson is to not simply stop with the standard choice.

Sasanquas can transform December garden doldrums, and their close cousin the tea plant deserves a place in University City gardens, too.

A quick botanical note: The “standard” camellia is Camellia japonica (“Japanese camellia”). Sasanqua camellias are a different species, Camellia sasanqua, and tea is yet another camellia species, Camellia sinensis (“Chinese camellia”).

All three originated and thrive in Asia, and, like many Asian immigrants (crape myrtle, Burford holly, and, of course, kudzu), they all do just fine in the Carolina Piedmont.

Sasanqua camellias come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from tall, somewhat conical forms to low spreaders that can serve as ground covers. The flowers are smaller than standard camellias and don’t hold up as well as cut flowers.

Still, they are a lovely addition to any landscape, with their overall beauty and late fall flower display.

Mecklenburg Master Gardener Tom Nunnenkcamp, a camellia authority with an outstanding home collection, said sasasquas will tolerate full sun a bit better than their standard cousins, though they, too, prefer open, partial shade.

For camellias, N.C. State University recommends loose, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic, the way our soils tend to be naturally. Adding lime is not a good idea.

Camellias are shallow-rooted and need excellent drainage. Planting the plants high, in a slightly raised bed or mound, is recommended, along with adding a couple inches of pine bark mulch, compost or other organic material.

But NCSU cautions against adding peat moss. No fertilizer is required, though some gardeners – me included – like to add a modest amount of bonemeal to provide supplemental phosphorus.

In our yard, sasanquas are massed under willow oaks on the north side of the house. They have grown slowly but well, each year treating us to a flower display that is the perfect antidote to the holiday blues.

They share space with azaleas and oakleaf hydrangea, and the fall scarlet of the hydrangea leaves makes the camellia flowers look that much better.

We got our plants from The Camellia Forest Nursery, near Chapel Hill. At that nursery’s website,, you can browse their vast selection of camellia varieties and hybrids. There are dozens of species beyond the most familiar ones. A visit to the nursery is a treat for gardeners.

When we were there, tea caught our eye. Tea plants (again, there are many varieties, so it is dangerous to generalize) have large, glossy leaves and inconsequential flowers, which bloom at roughly the same time as sasanquas.

The main attraction is the chance to make your own tea. You’ve heard of “edible landscaping”? Well, call this “drinkable landscaping.”

Tea prefers the same general soil and cultural conditions as sasanquas and other camellias, though when grown as a crop, tea can be managed in full sun. The large-leaf type we bought from Camellia Forest has been more successful than smaller-leaf types we purchased from other sources.

Tea can make an attractive if nondescript low hedge, sheared on an ongoing basis to harvest the leaves.

Making tea appears to be as complicated as you want to make it. An old Buddhist story relates that, one windy day, some sasanqua leaves blew into an emperor’s water cup, and he liked the taste – it’s that simple.

Other approaches are much more complex, involving fermentation and other factors. Several websites have step-by-step instructions. Following the blessedly uncomplicated one on the Camellia Forest site, I’ve made myself some cups of tea that put store-bought stuff to shame. As usual, freshness counts!

If growing your own tea seems like too much trouble, and you want to try some Carolina tea right now, you are in luck: Tea is now being grown commercially in the South Carolina Lowcountry, at the Charleston Tea Plantation,

Its 127 acres of tea plants on Wadmalaw Island are open to visitors, and it offers a trolley tour of the grounds and tea factory.

Owned by the Bigelow Tea Co., the plantation is unique in the continental U.S. The tea harvested at the plantation is used only for American Classic Tea, not in Bigelow’s regular tea brands.

You can purchase American Classic Tea from the plantation locally at Berrybrook Farms in Dilworth (704-334-6528) or at Tea Rex in Charlotte (704-525-3366).

I am aware that the Carolinas have a reputation for supporting tea party politics. For this gardener, brewing a fresh pot from leaves harvested in the front yard, or on Wadmalaw Island, is more my cup of tea.