Camellias are one of the signature plants of Southern gardens.

If you own a home in our coastal region you’ll discover countless varieties used as specimen shrubs and for evergreen screening purposes. Moving westward into the colder hardiness zones, gardeners seek out a protected spot for a prized Camellia japonica selection and use it for bragging rights at garden clubs or flower shows.

Modern cold-hardy hybrids of C. japonica and new varieties of Camellia sasanqua continue to expand the range for planting this botanical delight. Their magnificent flowers offer a diverse palette of color, and combining the two species in a garden setting provides cutting material over many months. As urban landscapes become smaller, camellias are becoming increasingly beneficial for design, noise abatement, and blocking unsightly views in a community.

Camellias can be planted in fall to take advantage of the warm temperatures for quick establishment. Thoroughly amended, well-drained soil that’s high in organic matter is essential. Test the soil and adjust to a pH of 6.0. Be sure to plant camellias “high” since they’re shallow rooted. And choose a shaded spot since camellias often sunburn in sunny, exposed sites. Morning sun or high, dappled shade from tall-canopy trees is ideal.

Although there are both compact and spreading forms of camellias, most varieties are vigorous; growing to 12 feet or more. Camellias do require some maintenance in confined space. Pruning should be kept to a minimum and must occur soon after the blooming period. Resist the temptation to prune them with power shears; this is a shrub that responds best to hand-pruning. Plants benefit from a light application of organic fertilizer when their foliage lacks luster or flowering is sparse. Mature camellias cared for properly are more than conversation pieces, they are gems.

While C. japonica with its saucer-size flowers is the star in early spring, C. sasanqua takes a bow in fall. Sasanquas brighten autumn with smaller, resplendent flowers of ‘Cleopatra’ perfuming the air in September and ‘Yuletide’ in full glory as the holiday season approaches. A good choice for winter, and a heavy bloomer, is Camellia x ‘Crimson Candles’. This species can be trained for trellises, espalier, topiary or bonsai, and is found throughout zone 7 gardens.

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For more than 30 years, Toby Bost has been a resource to North Carolina gardeners and growers as an agricultural extension agent, a trainer for master gardeners, and an author. His books include The Successful Gardener Guide: North Carolina, North Carolina Gardener’s Guide, and The Carolina Gardener’s Guide. He can be reached through Our State magazine at gardening@ourstate.com

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