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Crazy About Camellias

Camellias make a tidal wave of bright blooms.

A flowering shrub or tree can add a splash of color to any landscape, but when that plant happens to be a camellia, it's more like a tidal wave of bright blooms. Lots of new things are happening in the world of camellias, including more cold-hardy varieties, and new fragrances and colors.

Camellias are well-bred and regal shrubs and a shady garden is their kingdom. "Every year, new varieties come out, and I always want to have the new stuff," says Jim Randall.

Some new varieties of camellias are actually genetic mutations. This, for example, is a camellia from the Elegans family, which loves to sport or mutate. A sport is a mutation. Once a variety mutates, breeders try to propagate that sport and create a whole new camellia.

For example, this 'Chandleri Elegans' sported this 'Elegans Supreme'.

An observant breeder grafted it onto a variegated under-stock, or root system, to produce 'Variegated Elegans'. 'Elegans Variegated' eventually sported 'C. M. Wilson', which sported 'Elegans Splendor', which sported 'Elegans Champagne'.

For propagation, Randall uses two fairly simple methods — cutting and grafting. "To reproduce camellia through cutting, first we need a snip of a plant that we would like to reproduce," says Randall.

  • Cut a four-inch section of last year's growth with nice healthy leaves on dark brown wood. "The first thing we want to do is cut the leaves in half to cut down the transformation of the scion."

  • On the cut branch, which is called the scion, Randall makes a long diagonal slice to expose as much cambium as possible. (The cambium is the dark green circle just inside the stem that contains living cells.)

  • Next, Randall dips the scion into the water, shakes off the excess, and dips it into a rooting hormone.

  • Finally, he plants the cutting in a planting medium of perlite and ground bark. Randall suggests making a small greenhouse for the cutting by placing a few bamboo sticks in each corner of the pot and a plastic bag over the whole thing. "Put this in a place that gets plenty of light but no direct sunlight so your cutting doesn't cook."

    Grafting

    But if you want your camellia blooming sooner, Randall recommends crafting a graft. "This is my preference because you can have a blooming plant usually within two years, whereas a cutting may take three or four years."

    1. Cut the right length of the cutting, and then cut the leaves in half. Bevel two sides of the stem to expose the scion's cambium layer.

    2. Cut off the under-stock. According to Randall, the larger the under-stock is, the faster your scion is going to grow.

    3. Next, make a little cut across the top of the under-stock to set the scion in. Randall uses a screwdriver to open the slit and fit the scion into.

  • Line the green up on both the under-stock and the scion to ensure a take. Stretchy grafting tape wrapped around the take will keep things snug. Paint some fungicide around the union with a paintbrush to prevent mold from growing. To keep humidity up in this graft, we have to construct a mini-greenhouse, and the best thing to use is a one-gallon jar. All you have to do is insert the jar upside down over your graft.

  • If you're into growing these beauties but space is an issue, there are several miniature camellias that do quite well on a porch in a pot. "You need a very good draining soil — that's very important — and you also need the right exposure," Randall says. "Eastern exposure or filtered shade is the best."

    Tip: Don't compost your camellia blooms because they're susceptible to a fungal disease known as petal blight. Most compost piles won't heat up enough to kill the fungus so to be on the safe side, go ahead and trash them.

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