By Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
Recently my husband had a dental visit and I was along to fill out the forms – a small thing to do for someone who cooks all our meals. Walking to the office I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks. There beside me was a large evergreen shrub loaded with pink blooms. I recognized it as Camellia sasanqua. Most of us are familiar with the spring blooming camellia, C. japonica but C. sasanqua blooms in the fall and can be just as impressive.
This lovely pink bloom on Camellia sasanqua will delight in the fall. Good for pollinators because so few plants are blooming during the fall.
There are three camellia species that will thrive in Southside. Japanese camellia, C. japonica, is the spring bloomer we know and love. As with most camellias, acidic, well drained soils are preferred, typical of azaleas and rhododendrons. Best grown in part shade and in an area protected from wind. Apparently, camellias grown in these conditions have better winter hardiness according to the American Camellia Society. Right now you are probably thinking how do you get well drained soils when you have heavy clay. I listened to a Joe Lamp’l podcast today where he preached about soil preparation. To prepare the soil, add organic amendments such as shredded leaves, composted manure and compost. These additions will improve the water draining capacity and improve soil fertility as the amendments decompose.
Now back to that Sasanqua camellia, C. sasanqua. Sasanqua camellia has the same requirements as the Japanese camellia such as soil acidity, light and wind protection. Overall, the leaves are smaller and the blooms are smaller. But the beauty is that this camellia blooms anywhere from September to December so it is having a party when most of the garden has gone to bed. The Sasanqua I saw was abuzz with pollinators since there is so little food for them during this time. My farm log indicates that we had 20 inches more rainfall last year than normal. It was most likely the amount of rainfall that made the Sasanqua camellias so spectacular this fall.
The third camellia, C. sinensis, is one you know but probably don’t realize, the tea plant. There are many natural occurring varieties that grow in different areas of Asia. When the Halifax County Library Book Discussion Tea selected “Teatime for the Firefly” by Shona Patel, I learned about C. sinensis var. assamica or Assam tea. This is part of the blend of Irish Breakfast Tea and has a very robust flavor. It is now my favorite tea. According to the American Camellia Society, seeds of tea were the first camellia brought to the New World. Attempts to grow tea in both Savannah and Charleston were unsuccessful for many reasons. It is ironic that the only tea plantation in the United States is the Charleston Tea Garden which has a rich history of its own. In the “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants”, Michael Dirr says that this camellia is hardier than either Japanese or Sasanqua, hardy enough to be grown up into USDA zone 6. It is also a fall bloomer and is more forgiving in its growing conditions. If you’ve been afraid to try camellias, this would be a good one.
I have been reluctant to mention gardens to visit since most require reservations if they are even open. However, if you love camellias and are ever in the Florida Panhandle, Eden Gardens State Park in Santa Rosa Beach, is worth a visit. The garden offers both C. japonica and C. sasanqua species. My existing C. japonica was purchased there many years ago and I know better. In gardening, provenance should be considered when purchasing plants or seeds, meaning it is best to purchase plants within a 200-mile radius of the planting. However, this camellia has done very well. It tends to bloom early so a late frost will kill the buds but when it does bloom, it is lovely to behold.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to let Dr. Bradley know that we miss him and are wishing him the best in his retirement. While we all are practicing ‘social distancing’ and Halifax County buildings are still closed to the public due to COVID-19, if you have gardening questions, you can reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are unable to email, you can call and leave a message at the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask, practice ‘social distancing’ and plan on planting a camellia or two this year.