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Camellias add color to winter landscapes

Camellia sasanqua is distinctive for its lovely color and the bright yellow stamens in the center of each bloom.
Camellia sasanqua is distinctive for its lovely color and the bright yellow stamens in the center of each bloom. TNS

Our muted winter landscapes don’t have the abundance of colors that we see during the warmer months. However, one of the most noticeable ornamental shrubs right now is the camellia. Its blooms and foliage can brighten any dreary landscape.

A marker in Macon’s Third Street Park offers a glimpse at Middle Georgia’s long standing love affair with camellias. It notes that the first public camellia show in the U.S. was held here in 1932. Following the show, the Azalea and Camellia Society was formed. Later, in 1945, the American Camellia Society (ACS) was organized in downtown Macon at the Dempsey Hotel. Massee Lane Gardens, just outside of Fort Valley, became the ACS headquarters in 1966, with a donation of land from David Strother.

The genus Camellia encompasses a wide variety of plants, with more than 200 species. While all camellias originate in Japan and surrounding areas, some of the most common found here include:

▪ Camellia japonica: Japonicas are the most common ornamental camellias. Cultivars (cultivated varieties) vary widely with flowers available in all sizes, colors and forms.

▪ Camellia sasanqua: These are the fall blooming camellias, with flowers September through December. Flowers are generally white and very delicate. The leaves are typically smaller than japonicas. Sasanquas will grow in either sun or shade.

▪ Camellia reticulata: Reticulatas came to the U.S. in the 1940s. They have the largest of all camellia flowers and can be crossed with japonicas.

▪ Camellia sinensis: Sinensis is the common tea plant. The blooms are not outstanding as an ornamental and the plant forms many seed pods. For more on the interesting history of this plant, visit the ACS site at americancamellias.com

▪ Camellia japonicas are ideally suited for a full shade or filtered light area; sasanquas can tolerate quite a bit more sun. They require well-drained, acidic soils rich in organic matter. Camellias are very slow growers.

While older camellia japonicas may grow to 25 feet tall, they typically range from 6 to 12 feet. In Japan, there are plants known to be more than 500 years old. The plant has a spread of 6 to 10 feet when mature. The prized flowers, which range in color from white to pink and red, are 3 to 5 inches in diameter. The blooms may be single, semi-double, double, formal double or full peony form.

Sasanquas vary from upright to low and spreading with heights ranging from 1½ to 12 feet tall. Their leaves are usually darker green and smaller than the leaves of camellia japonicas. In general, the flowers of sasanquas are smaller and more fragrant than japonicas.

Because camellias are slow growers, water during establishment is critical. Like other ornamental plants, camellias do best if planted in the fall. However, they can be planted during the late winter through early spring. Camellias are shallow rooted plants that need to be mulched and watered properly.

After establishment, light applications of an azalea and camellia fertilizer can be made during the spring. Follow the instructions on the label. Scorched leaf edges and leaf drop can be an indicator of over fertilization. Some flower bud drop is normal. However, excessive bud drop may be caused by lack of water in the summer. Camellias typically don’t require much pruning, usually just to remove damaged branches or long shoots. Severe (rejuvenation) pruning can be done in the late winter, if necessary.

On occasion, camellias experience insect and disease problems. Tea scale, root rot and viruses are some of the more common issues.

For more information about growing camellias or combating problems, contact your local County Extension office. Also, consider visiting Massee Lane Gardens in person or online at americancamellias.com.

Contact county Extension agent Karol Kelly at karolk@uga.edu.