Winter beauty

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November 2, 2020

The cooler months are camellias’ time to shine. 

by Philip Carter 

The cooler nights here in Charlotte mean one thing: Aside from the fact that I won’t be melting anymore while speaking with clients, camellias will soon be in bloom across the South.

I’m not exactly sure where my love of this elegant winter rose originated. My parents and grandparents had a few that I remember fondly, but it wasn’t until I moved to Charleston, S.C., that I became completely obsessed. There are specimens well over 100 years old planted by, in my imagination, sweet little ladies in large, brimmed hats who belong to the garden clubs and societies. Man, I can almost taste the lemonade.

Philip Carter of Allium Fine Gardens

A little history about the camellia

Originally brought over after the Revolutionary War, Camellia japonica, one of the species most common to us today, was introduced at Middleton Place just outside of Charleston. From there, things really took off. Horticulturists and property owners alike wanted to plant them on their estates. Everyone wanted their own cultivar, or variety, to be displayed. And boy oh boy, breeders have not disappointed. One of the most hybridized plant species around, there is literally a camellia variety for everyone to like. The flowers have an almost limitless array of colors in a variety of combinations and patterns. Some are modest, with a subtle allure, while others aim to be the belle of the ball.

Types and species

There are two species of camellia most common in the U.S. Camellia sasanqua are hardier plants that can take a bit more sun. They often have a smaller leaf size and come in an array of heights and colors. These varieties bloom early fall into winter. If you have a tough spot in need of privacy, a larger growing sasanqua variety could just be the answer.

The Camellia japonica, on the other hand, tends to have a larger leaf and prefers a bit more shade. I also find their flower arrangements to be more unique and, in general, they have a more elegant presence in the garden. My personal favorite is a variety called Pearl Maxwell, with shell pink round blooms. Take it from me, go pick one up — I can assure you, you will not be disappointed.

When and how to enjoy camellias

Depending on the variety, camellias put on their show sometime between the end of October and the end of March.  You’ve likely run across these plants around town — at the doctor’s office, outside your kids’ school or in the Harris Teeter parking lot. For most of the year, they blend into the swaths of green. However, come the middle of October, their swollen buds are screaming to burst forth.  

How to use camellias in the garden

Whatever your gardening needs, there is likely a camellia variety to fill it. Need a specimen piece in a corner? Boom, camellia! Need some low-growing, flowering shrubs across the front of the house? Again, camellia. Need something architectural for that container on your condo terrace? You guessed it camellia!

These Southern beauties really don’t ask for much once established, and they’re super easy to take care of.  As long as there’s shelter from the hottest afternoon sun and well-drained soil, they won’t need much attention. The main thing to remember when selecting a variety is to take note of how big they will eventually grow. I see plenty of butchered overgrown camellias around town. Those two seconds to look at the plant tag will save you a potential headache five years later. 

How to use camellias inside

Camellias make wonderful cut flowers for the kitchen counter or beside the bed. Simply prune off as many buds as you need, making sure to leave the stems long enough to reach water. Pull off most of the leaves and arrange in a vase or container. Bonus tip: For a longer bloom time, be sure to pick several unopened flower buds.

Camellias for the holidays

Having a little winter party? Float opened camellia blooms in bowls or containers of water. This is super easy, and looks stunning to boot. Need something green for the mantel? Trim off some stems and mix with other greenery for a bit of natural holiday decor.

I’ve probably shared more about this winter beauty than you expected to read when flipping through the pages today. Since you’ve made it this far, I’d like to say thanks for taking the time. I hope you give a little thought to getting one or two camellias for your garden space or patio. You will be more than happy you did.

Enjoy the show that’s coming in these next few weeks. Hopefully, it will be something you too come to look forward to in the years to come. SP

Compiled by Whitley Adkins. Philip Carter is the owner of Allium Fine Gardens, a boutique garden design firm serving Charlotte and Charleston, S.C. 

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