Favorite Camellia Varieties
Camellias are classic shrubs for Southern gardens, so it’s not surprising that author and lifestyle expert James Farmer, who hails from Georgia, would have a passion for their delicate flowers.
'I’m partial to some of the old favorites like ‘Debutante’ and ‘Professor Sargent’”, he says, plants that grew in his grandmother and great-grandmother’s flower gardens. “Camellias just seem to be at their peak in that sandy, South Georgia soil.”
His all-time favorite is a white camellia—almost any white camellia. “The blooms are crisp and perfect, especially when you want to escape the cold and dreary weather. There’s a kind of purity to them that stands out even in winter. Those white petals on those dark, dark, glossy green leaves are so romantic.”
These slow-growing evergreens are valuable in the landscape, too, useful around foundations, as specimen plants, or in borders and hedges. It’s almost unfair that they won’t thrive everywhere, but most are hardy only in zones 7 to 9, the so-called “camellia belt” of the southern U.S. Breeders are working to develop camellias that can withstand more cold.
But camellias have a wider range than most of us think, says Farmer, who has served as a spokesman for the American Camellia Society. “We associate them with the south, and they were brought into the country through Charleston. But you can grow beautiful camellias as far south as West Palm Beach. They also grow well in southern California and the Napa Valley area, where the winter is mild and they can bloom without risk of frost.
Late spring frosts often kill or damage the buds of Camellia japonicas, which bloom in the spring. The other widely available camellia species, sasanquas, bloom in the fall.
“If you’re looking for a hardier flowering shrub,” Farmer says, “try sasanquas. They give you a head start on camellia season. I really like ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and ‘Yuletide’, which has red blooms and pretty yellow stamens. It’s really nice around Christmastime.”
One of Farmer's top picks, ‘Debutante’, is a C. japonica with light pink flowers and a “classic, gorgeous look. The flowers look almost lacy, like those silk flowers older women would wear on their dresses.” He likes another old favorite, 'Professor Sargent', for its "fluffy red blossoms with yellow stamens."
The classic white camellia for Southern gardens, he adds, is 'Alba Plena'. "‘Polar Ice’ and ‘Snow Flurry’ are other great whites." For better cold hardiness, he recommends camellias in the ‘April’ series, such as ‘April Blush’ and ‘April Snow’. They bloom a little later in northern areas.
With the right selections, Farmer says, you can have blooms from October to April. “That’s pretty amazing. Also remember that camellias make excellent container plants, but they need large containers. They do especially well in terra cotta containers that can breathe.”
Don’t plant your camellias too deep in the ground, he advises. “It’s better to plant a little bit high and keep the top of the root ball level with the soil, so water won’t stand around the truck. Camellias have shallow roots and need moderate water. Overwatering can lead to leaf and bud drop.”
Farmer fertilizes his plants after the blooms finish. “They don’t need heavy fertilizing but they’re acid-loving, so use a fertilizer formulated for azaleas or camellias.”
“Pruning is the biggest cause of their demise,” he says. "They can grow into a small tree or a large shrub, so be careful where you plant, or you could have a camellia that’s 15 feet tall by the front door. But don’t give your camellia the same kind of haircut you’d give your poodle."
Farmer says you shouldn't prune with gas-powered tools. “Don’t use gas for cutting anything, unless you’re mowing the grass. You wouldn’t use gas tools to manicure your nails. Just do a light shaping or cut the blooms for arrangements, and know when to prune. If you prune in summer, you won’t have any flowers next year. Prune after the blooms finish.”
After all, he says, camellias are easy to grow. “Think about a 100 year-old farmhouse with a big, old camellia planted out front, blooming its heart out. It may have needed help to get established, but then it did great.”