OCTOBER 7, 2010
CAMELLIAS: HARD TO BEAT FOR FALL AND WINTER BLOOMS
Normally, at the first of the month I would be sending you off with a check list of things to do during the next 30 days but I sort of touched on that last week and frankly, most of you know that it is time to rake leaves, winterize the lawn and put the garden to bed. If you have any enthusiasm left for gardening after this very challenging year then perhaps I might be able to persuade you to consider a few new plants for the landscape.
Specifically, I would like to discuss Camellias. These broadleaf evergreen shrubs fall into two main categories, japonicas that bloom in the winter to early spring and the sasanquas that bloom in the fall (as in now). Not to confuse you too much, but these two species have been hybridized and crossed with each other so that many of the varieties on the market are a nice blend of both.
Camellia japonica is a sturdy shrub with 2-3 inch long dark green glossy leaves. The plant over time will actually develop into a nicely shaped small tree of about 12-15 feet tall but usually by the time that happens we realize that where we planted it is too small of a space and so we end up constantly hacking on it. (I believe this scenario fits into my mantra of “right plant, right place” dilemma.) Like rhodies that outgrow their location, we can prune camellias severely and they will re-sprout from old wood and form new branches. If this is done in spring immediately after bloom then the plant should set buds for the following year.
Camellia sasanqua looks much like its cousin japonica but with slightly smaller and narrower leaves and a looser growth habit. Sasanquas lend themselves to being trained on a wall or as we call it in the horticultural world, espaliering. There is even a new variety on the market that can be used as a ground cover.
Both types of camellias prefer some morning sun and afternoon shade. If you plant them in total shade you may be disappointed with their performance. They are acid lovers just like our rhodies and azaleas so are well suited to our northwest soils. Be sure and add lots of organic matter to the soil when you plant and apply an annual layer of mulch to help keep their shallow surface roots from drying out. Feed with a slow release organic fertilizer that is formulated for acid loving plants.
While camellias are mostly disease free, they can have problems with scale. These are sucking insects that are mobile for a brief time in their youth and then settle down and form a hard shell for protection. As they suck the plant juices they secrete a sticky honey dew which becomes a food source for a nasty fungus called sooty mold. Sooty mold looks like soot and if left unchecked can completely cover the leaf surface and render it useless for photosynthesis. Planting in an area with good air circulation and keeping an open growth habit will go a long way to preventing this from happening but if you get scale then you need to deal with it early rather than late.
Camellias come in a broad range of flower colors and styles from diminutive singles with showy yellow stamens to big and fluffy doubles. The singles and more formal doubles seem to hold up best in our wet fall and winter weather. Colors range from white to pink to red and combinations of all of the above. I have even seen a yellow one but it was quite pale and a bit of a disappointment.
For an excellent description of varieties that are commonly found in the trade go to the Monrovia website and click on their Plant Catalog. You will see full color photos of many varieties and a complete description as to how tall they grow and when they bloom. This is a great website for general gardening information and design ideas as well as a plant encyclopedia.
So muster up some excitement for Camellias and go plant one or two this fall. If they aren’t in bloom when you buy them, they probably will be very soon.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at the nursery at 425-334-2002 or email at email@example.com