Camellias Can Bring Hardy Color to East End Gardens - 27 East

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Camellias Can Bring Hardy Color to East End Gardens

Number of images 6 Photos
April Dawn Blush is a japonica type with a light pink, 3-to-4-inch double flower occasionally with dark pink stripes. Hardy to zone 6b, it’s well suited to protected East End gardens. CAMELLIA FOREST NURSERY

April Dawn Blush is a japonica type with a light pink, 3-to-4-inch double flower occasionally with dark pink stripes. Hardy to zone 6b, it’s well suited to protected East End gardens. CAMELLIA FOREST NURSERY

This Camellia japonica seen in full bloom outside the Camellia House at Planting Fields. VINCENT SIMEONE

This Camellia japonica seen in full bloom outside the Camellia House at Planting Fields. VINCENT SIMEONE

Camellia japonica

Camellia japonica "Korean Fire" was discovered by plantsman Barry Yinger on islands near the north and south Korean border. The single blooms are red and 3 to 4 inches wide, and the plant is slow growing, compact and upright. CAMELLIA FOREST NURSERY

Camellia

Camellia "Long Island Pink" is a cold-hardy type and evergreen. It has a compact habit and is a fall bloomer. It grows about 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide. VINCENT SIMEONE

Camellia

Camellia "October Magic Dawn" is another fall bloomer. It has a compact habit with large rose bush-like blooms without the problems of being a rose. This variety is said to be salt, drought and heat tolerant and hardy to zone 7. VINCENT SIMEONE

Camellia

Camellia "Winterstar" is an Ackerman hybrid with large violet-pink single flowers with yellow stamens. Hardy to zone 6 it needs to be protected from winter winds to protect to protect the buds. VINCENT SIMEONE

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Hampton Gardener®

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Jan 25, 2024
  • Columnist: Andrew Messinger

This week, a challenge for Hampton gardeners. An opportunity to grow a shrub that only a few out here have tried but several have done so successfully. A shrub that climate change may present as an opportunity instead of a bad omen. A shrub whose flowers can look like a magnificent rose, a dahlia, a peony, or an anemone, and one that will flower when few others aren’t even contemplating blooming.

In a 1990 New York Times piece, horticulturist and garden writer Tovah Martin referred to this shrub as a “horticultural heartbreaker and, afraid of failure, admired from afar.”

Fear not, though, fellow gardeners.

On the weekend of February 17 and 18, the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay will be having its annual Camellia Festival (plantingfields.org/happenings/camellia-festival-2024) where you can see hundreds of these shrubs in the Camellia house, and a good number may also be in bloom outdoors as well. I promise, you will leave very, very tempted. Planting Fields has been working on its hardy Camellia collection, and it’s now believed to be the largest collection on Long Island — and growing. The arboretum’s outdoor (hardy) collection now rivals what you’ll see in its Camellia greenhouse in terms of varieties in the collections.

Not only can over 100 varieties of this shrub be grown out here in our gardens, but Camellias may also be the solution for those of you who want to have a greenhouse but don’t want the expense of heating it. Camellias can be grown in a “cold” greenhouse that will allow you to have a much more extensive collection of these plants at a fraction of the cost of heating a tropical greenhouse.

But wait there’s more, and it gets better. Camellias like acidic soils, which we have. They’re also fond of sandy soils that have been amended with organic material like compost. They also do well when mulched with pine needles and will prefer the light shade offered by taller pine trees that keep the sun from beating down on them. Seems that many of you have these conditions or can easily create them. Oh, and I should also mention that these shrubs are deer resistant, though with the feeding pressure out here they shouldn’t be considered to be deer proof.

Most Camellias are derived from the species Camellia japonica, and it’s been said that this woody species may have more cultivar selections than any other broadleaf (think Rhododendron) evergreen tree or shrub with an estimate of up to 30,000 varieties having been grown over the past several hundred years. The habit of this species can be columnar to pyramidal with the foliage 2 to 4 inches long, leathery, lustrous dark green and often serrated, with flowers 3 to 5 inches in diameter.

The challenge with this species, which is hardy to zone 7 (and maybe lower), is that the flowers are frost sensitive . However, if there is any kind of overhang, say from a pine tree, frost will likely not form on the Camellia, and even on chilly mornings the frost can be avoided as there has to be clear sky above for frost to form. Nonetheless, you should be careful in choosing plants within this species that are known to be hardy. Or take a walk on the wild side and experiment.

On the other hand, there is C. oleifera, which is hardy to zone 6 and often used as a breeding parent for other hardy Camellias. Some in this group flower from October into January and looking at the cultivar names most have “winter” or “frost” in their names such as Frost Princess, Winter’s Beauty and Winter’s Rose.

Camellia sasanqua is an evergreen species that has a more aesthetic habit, a fine texture and reliable flowers because it flowers in the fall. It’s less formal looking than C. japonica, oval to rounded with loose and often arching branches. The flowers are 2 to 4 inches wide and occur as singles and doubles in whites to reds and can bloom from September to December. This species does well in mass plantings, but it is noted as being prone to scale issues. It’s also noted as being cold hardy down to zero and may be a good choice to experiment with even though it may not put on as great a show as some riskier varieties.

Camellia sinensis may be the species that many are familiar with as it’s probably the most popular and also known as the tea Camellia. Its leaves are used to make white, green, oolong and black teas. The flowers are generally white with yellow stamens with the plants growing 4 to 6 feet tall and wide. Some varieties of the species are hardy to zone 6.

Cultivated varieties of C. sinensis include the variegated “Shirotae” and a contorted form “Unryu.” C. Rosea, or “Rubra,” has pink flowers and the new growth on the stems and branches are a reddish purple but the variety is noted as not being as hardy as others.

Camellia x williamsii is noted as being a winter flowering variety with flowers lasting as long as a month in late winter and “suspect in zones 7 to 9.”

Now, Camellias are not the kind of plant you get at the garden center and pick up, dig a hole, plant, water and forget. Keep in mind they need an acidic soil with lots of humus and moisture with that wonderful caveat: but “well drained.” They need a sheltered spot and won’t tolerate winter winds.

With the proper siting, Camellias are planted by digging a hole as deep as the root ball (for container plants) and twice as wide. While backfilling the hole, leave the top two or three inches of the ball exposed. Water thoroughly and add a few inches of mulch (pine needles will be great) but don’t cover the top of the root ball. Don’t add any fertilizer at planting. As a general rule they’ll need about an inch of water a week once established. When established (year 2) the plants can be fertilized using an acid-loving organic fertilizer, feeding the plants lightly in early spring and early summer after the flowers have finished.

As I noted earlier, the festival at Planting Fields would probably be a great place not only to see these plants but to ask questions from those who have experience with Camellias. Don’t be shy if you want to know other growers’ secrets.

And where do you buy these wonderful plants? In the past Hicks Nurseries in Westbury has carried a few, but I’d call before you take the trip. Fowler’s in Southampton will have some in several pot sizes in the spring so keep in touch with them to know when they’ll be coming in. If you want the largest selection, you can try a nursery like Camellia Forest Nursery (camforest.com) in North Carolina. They offer over 50 varieties and on their website where you can select our hardiness zone and a range of other growth characteristics (size, habit, color, bloom form) to narrow down your search. Some varieties are already sold out. And if you’re in the Chapel Hi ll area you can give them a visit and learn lots more.

Do your homework. Talk to fellow gardeners. Get as much information as you can then take the leap. You may be in for a very, very pleasant surprise. There is also an Instagram account, @longislandcamellia, where there are a number of pictures of the plants and flowers. Keep growing.

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