Japanese camellias (Camellia japonica) are one of the most recognized evergreen shrubs planted in Southern gardens. As the common name implies, these beauties are native to the Orient. The first ones were introduced to South Carolina by a Frenchman, André Michaux, who was a botanist to King Louis XVI. Michaux developed the first botanical garden in the South near Charleston in 1786. He shared his camellias with his neighbor, Henry Middleton, who started his landscaped gardens at Middleton Place in 1741. One of the original plants survives at Middleton today, a beautiful double red camellia ‘Reine des Fleurs’ (Queen of Flowers).
When choosing a cultivar, be sure to ask when it blooms. Camellias, depending on the cultivar, will bloom anywhere from late fall into early spring. They bloom when there isn’t much else flowering in the garden and offer a touch of color to brighten up a drab winter landscape. The flower colors range from white, pink, red, and variegated blends.
It’s important to plant camellias in the right place for them to do well. Japanese camellias prefer light shade to part shade in rich, humusy soil with some protection from cold winter winds. Many people make the mistake of planting them in hot afternoon sun.
Camellias were one of my parents’ favorite flowers, so their landscape was filled with many different cultivars that bloomed throughout the winter and early spring. As I walk through my own garden on a winter day, I feel like I’m being greeted by old friends. I have over 30 camellia cultivars planted in my landscape, but here are a few of my favorites.
´Berenice Boddy´ was introduced in 1946 by La Canada Flintridge in California. It’s a mid-season bloomer with light pink on top and dark pink under the petals.
´Debutante´ was originally known as ´Sara C. Hastie´ and was developed at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston, SC in the early 1900’s. The light pink, peony form flowers bloom from early to mid-season.
´Lady Clare´ is an old garden favorite. It was introduced from Japan in 1887 and has good cold hardiness. The large, semi-double, deep pink flowers boom from early to mid-season.
´Magnoliaeflora´ is also known as ´Hagoromo´. The beautiful blush pink, wax-like flowers bloom mid-season on a compact shrub. It was introduced from Japan to Italy in 1886 and then imported to the US.
´Professor Charles S. Sargent´ was named in honor of Charles Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, by Rev. John Drayton in 1925. It was imported from Germany to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. This cold hardy camellia has tight, peony form dark red flowers and is a mid-season bloomer.
For more information on growing camellias, see HGIC 1062, Camellia.