Flower power: Learn how camellias can spruce up your garden
Sea Foam Camellia
Let’s talk camellias. Did you know that our beloved tea, served cold and very sweet in the south, is made from the leaves of a camellia, specifically the genus camellia sinensis?
For centuries, it was thought that black and green teas came from different plants. They actually come from the same species of camellia, but black tea is fermented. The more I learn about gardening, the more I realize how much I don’t know!
Camellias flourish in certain parts of Georgia. It seems these beautiful plants must have been born here. But camellias are from eastern and southern Asia. More than 3,000 named kinds of camellias exist. I plan to put several varieties in my own garden. Many people don’t realize we have a couple of wholesale camellia growers in the middle Georgia area who have an incredible selection.
One of them grows over 350 varieties. I have been putting together a list of some show-winning camellias to enjoy in a garden. To me, it seems there are three basic species of camellias.
- Japonica, which has the big glossy leaves and has dense foliage even in shade.
- Reticulata, which has the largest blooms of them all.
- Sasanqua, which has smaller leaves and will do better in sun.
Japonica camellias even thrive in dense shade, and are low maintenance, because they grow slowly and don’t require a lot of pruning. I have picked out a few varieties that are a must have for my garden. Sea foam is one beautiful variety. It has large, dark, glossy leaves and one of the perfect blooms. Grape soda is unique because it’s one of the only varieties with a lavender bloom.
Like hydrangeas, the soil acidity determines how much the bloom will trend toward lavender, and you can apply aluminum sulfate to achieve a darker, more profuse bloom color.
Another variety that is more of a hybrid is called “high fragrance.” This camellia has a pink peony bloom and, as the name implies, is highly fragrant. Reticulata camellias are not quite as cold hardy as japonicas, but they still do well in our region. The reticulatas tend to have the largest bloom of all the species – up to seven inches across.
One of the most popular varieties is Frank Houser, developed by the late Dr. Walter Homeyer of Macon. This variety flowers red and has one of the largest blooms. Another variety is valentine, which has a large to very large formal double bloom, with a rosebud center. These are the species that are favorites at flower shows. Competitors will often apply gibberellic acid to increase the size of the bloom and extend the bloom process.
Sasanquas are notable because they thrive in the full sun, but also do well in shady conditions. Most are vigorous growers, and typically require more pruning, depending on the space you allow.
A favorite sasanqua is the shishi gashira. The advantage to this variety is that it only grows three to five feet tall, and grows slowly. It is an early bloomer with smaller, dark pink flowers. A couple other notable varieties that are more vigorous growers are: Alabama beauty (a three-inch red peony bloom) and Marie Kirk (a perfect, pure white multi-petal formal double).