Most people in the North are cognizant that camellias are lovely flowers, but know little more than that. A camellia is a woody broadleaf evergreen native to the Far East. There are hundreds of species found in temperate, subtropical, and tropical parts of Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and neighboring countries.
Generally grown as an ornamental shrub, with great age a camellia can become a small tree, exceeding 30 feet. Leaves are oval and pointed, two to four inches long, with finely serrated margins, and can be matte to shiny. The bark is beige and smooth, similar to that of a holly or beech.
Blooming during the cool months, camellias strongly resemble roses, so much so that in the early years of their introduction to the West they were known as Japan roses. Like roses they can be single or double. Their seasons are complementary, with roses taking the stage when camellias fade in late spring, and camellias picking up again as roses bow out in middle autumn. There are spring bloomers and autumn bloomers. But unlike many roses, their fragrance is light to nonexistent.
The spectrum is fairly narrow, going from white through pink to red, and including bi-colored varieties. If the reds and pinks are not true, they will usually tend toward purple or lavender. Yellow camellias are known; but they are subtropical species that would not have a prayer on Long Island. In years to come, cold-hardy yellow camellias will become more commonplace as hybrids being created now are brought into commercial production.
Long Island is not quite at the limit of camellia growing territory, although that frontier is not too distant. The toughest will succeed in northwestern New Jersey, the lower Hudson Valley, and southern New England, all places that experience significantly more severe winters than ours. Those regions have a limited palette of cultivars compared with the many from which we here can select.
I was introduced to camellias in 1967 at the age of 9 when I read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” my first grown-up book. I finally saw some in 1984 that were being sold as greenhouse subjects in a local nursery (Whitmore’s Tree Farm in East Hampton has a selection). I bought two, and, taking an expensive chance, stuck them in my backyard. My ignorance paid off. They are still growing there.
The late Jim Jeffrey, who left us less than a year ago, was a Louisiana native who brought his passion for camellias to East Hampton many years ago. He was a pioneer who discovered independently that this area is literally fertile ground for camellias. His village garden was structured around his extensive collection of them. Jim graciously invited the East Hampton Star photographer Durell Godfrey to photograph his prized selections throughout the seasons. Unfortunately, he is not here to identify each one.
All gardening is local. Sound advice for one part of the country can be damaging for another. For example: In the Deep South, where no more than the top inch of the soil ever frosts, siting a marginally hardy broadleaf evergreen on the north side of a house is standard procedure; doing so here is a recipe for fried camellia. In spots where the soil gets no direct sun for half a year, the ground can freeze rock solid half a foot down or more. Relentless winter winds suck moisture from the leaves, which the plant cannot replenish through its roots locked in frozen earth. The plant desiccates and dies. So do not plant a camellia on the north side of a structure, wall, or stockade fence.
When considering a site on your property, the last place where the snow melts every spring is the last place where you would ever situate a camellia. Best locations include a mix of sun and shade, while minimizing exposure to wind. The high deciduous shade created by our native oaks is tailor-made for under-planting with camellias, as in the natural habitat they occupy the understory. They also do well tucked up against hedges.
Camellias like acidic soil, which is lucky because we have it in spades. (Little joke there.) Roots are shallow. Plant high by an inch or so. Provide organic matter, a good layer of mulch, regular watering, and shelter; increase all of these if your soil is exceptionally sandy. Remember that as evergreens they are more subject to dehydration. But avoid planting where puddles are occur.
Choosing by blossom appeal at the nursery works nicely with the spring-blooming types. You can make your picks and have them in the ground the same day. They then have the entire summer to settle in. The fall-blooming types present a challenge. If you shop by looking at blooms rather than at tags, you will be buying at a time when planting evergreens is risky. If you do plant right away, you ought to wrap in burlap. You also must be sure to water thoroughly during any thaws. Alternatively, you can keep your autumn purchases in a cool place until late March, remembering to hydrate, until you can safely drop them into their holes.
Camellias of several species have been cultivated for millenia. Cultivars and hybrids of four species adapt well here. The most popular is Camellia japonica, the main spring blooming species for our area. There are thousands of varieties. The season is March to May, peaking in April. With a precocious variety, weeks of unseasonably mild temperatures, and perfect siting, you may, once in a decade, get a couple flowers in late February.
Any variety obtained from a local nursery for the garden should be fine, but here are a few suggestions. If you are an ultraconservative gardener, stick with these bone-hardy types:
Camellia sasanqua x Camellia oleifera “Survivor” was one of a handful left undamaged after a devastating minus 9 degree Fahrenheit night. It has single white autumn flowers and can eventually top 20 feet. Choose this if you believe that this past winter presages a new Little Ice Age. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 6a)
Camellia japonica “Korean Fire” was grown from seed collected close to the extreme northern natural range of the species, near the border between North Korea and South Korea in the early 1980s. It produces cranberry red single flowers in the spring. If this ever dies of the cold, fret not; the woolly mammoths will eat it. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 6a)
The following are more cold-tolerant than you need them to be:
Camellia japonica “Kumasaka” has loose double rose flowers. This is has been planted for decades in various parts of Long Island. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 6b)
Camellia japonica “Maidens of Great Promise,” with anemone form double flowers of rose, has done well in Ohio. Enough said. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 6b)
Camellia hybrids in the “Winter’s” series are fall-blooming crosses using Camellia oleifera created by Dr Bill Ackerman. They are available in several colors and forms. Dr Ackerman also produced a few spring blooming crosses using Camellia oleifera. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 6b) Camellia hybrids in the “April” series are spring-blooming cultivars created by Clifford Parks. They also are available in several colors and forms. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 6b)
The following are completely reliable for us:
Camellia japonica “Pink Perfection” is a handsome specimen with formal double pure shell pink flowers of show quality. Really, you could win an award at the Garden Club spring show with this one. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 7a)
Camellia sasanqua “Snow-On-the-Mountain” is also known as “Mine-No-Yuki” and “White Doves.” Although the multiple aliases might be confusing, this is the one that featured prominently in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is spectacular when in flower, with fallen petals blanketing the ground beneath it. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 7a)
Camellia sasanqua “Yuletide” is for the adventurous. It blooms during the shortest days of the year. Featured prominently in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it is spectacular when in flower, with fallen petals blanketing the ground beneath it. (U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 7a)
Its buds may not always survive very low temperatures, although the plants themselves will. As with much of what we covet, they are beautiful and fickle, which of course makes them irresistible. Love them and despair.