February 5, 2012

Camellia Bowl XLVII

In this month, when it seems we are forced to endure the dreary (thy grumpy Ground Hog, a dead President or two, dirty snow, the impending doom of mud season, and yeah, bowl games), we are reminded that we must remember the hottie ( St. Valentines Day, chocolate, hot cherry pie). But really, there is another reason why we secretly adore Saint Valentines Day, and it has nothing to do with jewelry. We more visual people love it because it is so perfectly pretty - just check out the seasonal candy isle at your local Walmart.  Businesses know that February needs a PR team - plus some designers picking out the perfect tint of periwinkle, magenta, coral and pink - combined with cerise and red - all trying to make this ugliest month (since November), somehow more survivable.  But I am reminded that before there were sweet tarts and chocolate covered cherries, and Jared, there was --- camellias.

Camellias are for old ladies. At least, that's what I used to believe. In the olden times ( like, fifty years ago) camellias were only seen as corsages for church, corsages for Gramma at a wedding, and for, I don't know - sweet tea parties in the south? . But these Chinese trees were once the most cherished if not rarest plants ever grown in containers and in gardens. At one time, they were only grown in the Imperial Palaces of Japan and China, where they were one of the first plants ever cultivated in pots by man, some dating back to the 10th century. Today, they are still not as common as one may think outside of California and the deep south in the US, or in southern Italy and France in Europe.

Here in the north, the camellia is a rare site, for they make horrible house plants, and they are not hardy for outdoor culture. To have any success with camellias, one must have a cold, sunny room with moist air - something that was more common a hundred years ago, but with modern heating systems, an indoor location rarely found in homes today.

Camellias are best grown in a cool, if not cold greenhouse, with buoyant air flow, a day and night shift in temperatures, and with bright winter light. An understory tree in its native eastern Asia ( the mountainous areas of Korea, China and Japan), this smallish tree did have its heyday in North America in the 18th and 19th century, for it was perfectly appointed for the estate conservatory which had wood or coal heat during the day, and chilly nights, or, it was often found in grand, Victorian parlours and homes which had unheated rooms. Camellias thrive in cold, if not near freezing temperatures, able to take frosts down near 15 - 20 degrees F for some time, so they are common landscape plants in areas where winters are more mild ( Oregon, Georgia, southern Europe, England and Japan), but elsewhere, they cannot live.

Camellia societies shows are terrific places to discover the perfect forms to grow. This show, at the Descanso Gardens in California, is held annually near Pasadena. Tables are laid about with small containers, each with a different selection often grouped in threes, fives, or singly. I made my wish list at two of these shows held in February a few few years ago, and then took my list to the nearby Camellia nursery - Nuccio's, where I had a crate packed and sent home on the plane with me. Trying to find camellia's in New England is practically impossible today, while a hundred a fifty years ago, most every greenhouse and florist from New York to Boston, had many trees growing for winter blooms to supply weddings, funerals and corsage work. Camellias are indeed, living heirlooms today, for one can hardly find a blossom anywhere - even in the poshest of New York City florists.

A selection of February camellias, picked today in my greenhouse showing the various forms available.


  1. Hello Matt, my camellia was almost covered in snow today, started to flower a few days ago. Head over to my blog and have a look if you like. Here in southern England it is very common to see camellias in gardens and parks. My camellia is probably around 30 years old and gets a thorough prune every other year to keep it in shape.

    Lovely photos, I’d love to have that camellia ‘lipstick’ !!

  2. We can get camellia foliage in the Boston Flower Exchange at this time of year, with the random stray bud. Always a treat if it develops! But nary a bloom to be had on its own.

  3. hopflower6:50 PM

    Oh, yes. The nursery where I work specialises in camellias. There are many different kinds and they are all popular. Funny to think that they are hard to grow outside of California now.

  4. Hi Helene, It must be so wonderful to be able to grow Camellias outdoors, I dream of gardening in England! You are so lucky! Thanks for you comment.

    Hopflower - what nursery do you work at? Do they sell mailorder? Let me know, and I will add a link.

  5. As one who spent the first 30 years of my life in suburban Boston and the coast of NH, I was fascinated by camellias when I moved first to Charleston and then to Atlanta; as you stated, they are the most commonplace "tough as nails" plants here, but I've often wondered about growing them in colder regions. Your post answered all my questions! At the residential estate where I garden, we've begun installing some older cultivars that are delightful.

    It's interesting you mentioned Nuccio's; two of my favorites are "Nuccio's Gem" and "Nuccio's Pearl," which are both incredible. Can't wait to locate "Lipstick," though!

  6. I have 3 lovely Camellia's, although I am planning on moving one. They form good hedging plants once established and work well as a screen.

  7. If you visit Charleston, SC, in winter, be sure to see the camellias at Magnolia Plantation. The gardens are known for their azaleas, but I think the camellias are the star! I fell in love with them growing up in Charleston, and I'm fortunate to be able to grow them in the midAtlantic.

  8. You have an exquiste collection, a good representation of cultivars. You are right: they are an old woman's flower. In bloom here from Thanksgiving with the advent of C. sasanqua and C. japonica in every warm spell until Easter, they're considered commonplace. This year we've been blessed with a mild winter and they are unbelievable in this old lady's landscape.


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