Cooler weather is here, which means it’s camellia time. Although camellias may be found in many modest gardens today, historically this group of showy evergreen shrubs served as a status symbol in the South. The difficulty in propagating them put this task beyond the skills of most amateur gardeners.
In the past, even professional nurserymen found the propagation of camellias challenging, and for generations this was reflected in relatively expensive prices for grafted nursery-grown stock. Cost and the difficulty of cultivation prevented camellias from following the classic path of exotic plants introduced into the South, as camellias never filtered down from the gardens of wealthy collectors to vernacular cottage garden plots. Until the past several decades, to have camellias blooming in your garden was proud evidence not only of horticultural skill, but also prosperity. Thankfully, today camellias are widely available at most nurseries and garden centers and are relatively easy to cultivate in East Texas.
Like so many of the South’s cherished ornamental plants, camellias originated in China and came to North America via Europe. The genus Camellia includes many species (including Camellia sinensis, the source of our iced tea), but of these, two are of special importance and interest in Southern gardens — Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua.
The delicate individual blossoms of sasanquas, though beautiful, are much less spectacular than those of C. japonica. Nevertheless, C. sasanqua fills an important garden niche because it is fall blooming while C. japonica cultivars (generally just referred to as “camellias” in the South) bloom in late winter or early spring.
Of the two ornamental species of camellias, C. japonica was the first to arrive in North American gardens, with the first plants arriving in New Jersey around 1797. From there, camellias made their way to New York, Massachusetts, Philadelpia and eventually south to the elite gardens of Charleston, Savanna and Mobile where they could be grown outdoors without greenhouse protection. By 1855, Martha Turnbull, of Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville Louisiana, had 100 camellias. The camellia’s trek across the South eventually culminated in Houston, where they were popularized with the birth of the River Oaks Garden Club Azalea Trail in 1936.
Camellias require a soil that is both well-drained and yet sufficiently moisture-retentive to maintain the plants through dry summers. If an existing soil is too heavy or sandy, it should be modified by the addition of organic matter. Mulches are beneficial, since they help insulate the soil from temperature and moisture extremes. Camellias are happiest in a spot that is protected from the hot afternoon sun, especially during the summer months. Large pine trees are excellent for providing such protection, as long as they are not planted too closely together.
If you’d like to see a nice collection of mature camellia cultivars, visit The Shade Garden, maintained by my Smith County Master Gardener volunteers, at the Tyler Rose Garden. We can thank the late Camellia Society for this beautiful assortment.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is author of “Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” “Heirloom Gardening in the South” and “The Rose Rustlers.” You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com) or follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More science- and research-based lawn and gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggieturf.tamu.edu and aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.