Camellias – A cold-hardy replacement for plants lost in the freeze

Camellias – A cold-hardy replacement for plants lost in the freeze, by Mark Govan, Host of “Florida Gardening” on 970WFLA Live on Sunday’s 7-9am.

            With dead plants and freeze-scorched leaves in every landscape, I felt the need to show you a plant that will never freeze or brown out. This plant not only likes cold weather, but thrives in it. Camellias can provide not only the cold-tolerance you are looking for, but also some beautiful winter flowers. If you like plants that are low maintenance, then you will like that camellias are slow growing, require very little pruning, and they produce blooms in many wonderful colors. This article will give you the information you need to select, plant, grow, and care for camellias in your landscape.

            There are two species of camellias I would like to introduce you to, Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. Camellia japonicas have large leathery leaves with five to eight-inch flowers that bloom from December through February. Some forms of this species may be tall and resemble a column while others are rounded and wider than their height. Although this species of camellia is a slow grower, I have seen some very old plants over twenty feet in height. However, those plants were well over fifty years old. Most homeowner plants will range in the four to the six-foot range.  

            There are many cultivars of camellias, and some of them do not bloom well in our area of Florida. When traveling to the local garden shop, be sure to ask for varieties that grow here. The cultivars I recommend for central Florida are – “Laura Walker”, “Debutante”, “Don Mac”, “Mrs. Tingley”, and “Mathotiana”. Although there are many additional cultivars that may do well here, these are a few I have grown.        

            Another species of the camellia the “C. sasanqua” grows much more slowly than the japonica species and are normally produced as small shrubs used in borders. Flowers and leaves of this species are smaller than the japonicas. Sasanqua camellias are normally open growers and are not as dense as the japonicas. The other main difference is that the sasanquas are fragrant, the japonicas are not. Once you see the blossoms in the late fall, I do not believe this will matter to you. They are absolutely stunning. If you are looking for a larger shrub, then you should choose a japonica. If you are looking for a small border shrub, choose the sasanqua.

            One of the most highly recommended cultivars of the sasanqua camellias is called “Shishi Gashira”. This beautiful evergreen plant will add tons of blossoms to your Winter garden, when other plants have gone dormant. Shishi Gashira is usually planted in groups on two-foot centers for best results. Although this plant can grow to a height of three feet, most plants I see are in the one to the two-foot range. Other cultivars I recommend for this area are “Mine-no-yuki”, “Cotton Candy”, and “Sparkling Burgundy”.

            Plant camellias in areas that are shaded. Northern exposures are the best. I like to put my plants near the home where they receive only part or morning sun. You can also plant them under the drip lines of oak or pine trees, which take the heat from the sun away from the plants. Planting holes need to be at least twice as wide as the root ball. Improve the soil with peat, compost, humus, and perlite for drainage. Adding some azalea/camellia fertilizer to the mix can help establish roots. Mix your improved soil with the soil you removed from the planting hole and replace around the root ball. The top of the root ball should be visible after planting. Try not to compact the soil around the root ball. Compacted soil restricts root growth.

            After planting, use a hose to water around and beneath the root ball to remove any air pockets from the planting hole. Push down on the soil with just enough pressure to stabilize the new plant, then let the water help settle the plant. When you are finished, the top of the root ball should be level with the soil surface. You do not want to bury the top of the root ball as this will cut off oxygen to the plant. You may add a thin layer of mulch around the plant when you are finished to help conserve water. After planting, water your new plants every other day and be sure the root ball does not dry out. 

            There is one insect problem you will have to watch for on camellias. Scale insects on the underside of the leaves will need to be inspected for, then treated if found. Use Malathion 50 to control these. Another problem called bull-nosing can happen when temperatures rise to fast in the winter causing the newly formed flower buds to abort and drop from the plant. This happens in mild winters after cool weather is followed by a drastic warm up in air temperature. Unfortunately, there is no control for this problem except to use the cultivars I have suggested above.   

                Instead of looking at frozen leaves and dead plants, you can observe the beautiful blooms of the camellia. Wintertime color can brighten your landscape and will require little maintenance. Enjoy your landscape and remember, without plants, we would not be here.     

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