Camellia Japonica sea foam
photograph by Charles Harris

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in March 2016 and updated in February 2019. 

Just as your gnarled, winter-withered fingers are grasping another mug of hot tea, or glass of red wine, salvation appears in flower form: the camellia. Thank heaven for camellias, which bloom in an otherwise bleak landscape, beginning in November and continuing through April. These natives of Japan and China (japonica = Japan; oleifera = China) love North Carolina, where, thanks to our five growing zones, they can get the high-filtered shade and acidic soil and dry feet they need to be happy. And we love camellias back, with their long blooming season, year-round glossy green foliage, and disease- and pest-proof resilience. Most of all, we love them for their endless variety of beautiful blooms in hues ranging from snow whites to shell pinks to feisty reds.

camellia peppermint

Cotton Candy: Sweet as its peppermint-drop coloration, a Camellia japonica’s stamens seek sun and pollinators through ruffly layers of petals.

camellia pink

In The Pink: The ethereal hue of this Camellia japonica is reflected in its name: “Pink Perfection.” Blink, and you might mistake it for a peony. Or bubble gum. photograph by Charles Harris

Red Camellia

Feisty Reds: Rich, dramatic, and bold are adjectives usually applied to tropical exotics, not blooms in North Carolina. But while this Camellia japonica named “Black Magic” is delicate, it’s surely no shrinking violet. photograph by Charles Harris

If camellias have a drawback, it’s that they don’t … arrange. The blooms grow on stemlets, not proper, pickable stems. They refuse to conform to a vase, so your best hope is to float them in a bowl of water. Often, the flowers bloom facing the ground, on the undersides of a branch. No matter. Just stand beneath them, and gaze upward. The blooms — in singles, like a pansy; whorled multiples, like a baby’s scalp; flared and mounded, like an old-fashioned powder puff — dangle overhead, the boughs literally weighed down with blossoms. That right there is flower heaven: a canopy of camellias.

At the Cape Fear Botanical Garden in Fayetteville, you can stand under — and beside, and between — more than 300 camellia shrubs, thanks to many volunteers and a private garden with hundreds of the plants. A portion of the plants were offered to the botanical garden by Mary McLaurin of Bath after her husband, Mac, died. In 1999, volunteers — including members of Fayetteville’s Camellia Club — dug up, transplanted, identified, labeled, and gave the plants a new home in the McLaurin Camellia Garden, a renowned collection that’s part of the American Camellia Trail. Markers along the broad, shaded path of fallen pine needles list names and dates of when each specific variety was introduced, one bred as long ago as 1856.

camellia judge

Perusing Perfection: A camellia gets its closeup from a discerning observer — or competitor — at the Camellia Club’s Annual Camellia Show in Fayetteville. With 30 prizes awarded, categories include Novice and Best Unprotected (that is, not grown in a greenhouse). The show is open to all camellias, er, growers of camellias. photograph by Charles Harris

Adriana Quiñones, the director of horticulture and education for the garden, loves the camellias as much as any North Carolinian. “They’re the best thing ever!” exclaims the native Ohioan — where camellias can’t survive. “Camellias form so many buds, and if it freezes in bud, the buds will survive.” She stands beneath her favorite, a 20-footer that seems to dangle apple-blossom-pink blooms from every bough like handkerchiefs. “Camellias are good for the winter pollinators,” Quiñones adds, since bees are always on the search for stamens. “And they’re also good for our snowbirds,” she smiles. She means the human kind, traveling north from Florida, who pull off I-95 to visit.

Sure enough, minutes later in the parking lot, a couple emerges from a car with Maine plates. They stretch, and blink their road-weary eyes into the Carolina sunshine.

73rd Annual Camellia Club Show

Ramada Plaza & Bordeaux Convention Center
1707-A Owen Drive, Fayetteville 28304

March 2-3 from 1-4 p.m.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.