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MEETING REPORT: All About Camellias

By Jeannine Romero.

The first thing people do when they see a camellia is admire the beautiful flowers, which resemble peonies or wild roses. The second thing they do, camellia expert Tom Nuccio says, 'is put their nose to it.’

Nuccio would know. His family has been selling, cultivating, and hybridizing the popular flowering shrub since 1935 in Altadena, California, and the Nuccio Nursery is one of the largest producers of the plant. Tom has been at the family’s nursery since the 1970’s, working alongside his brothers and a cousin.

But alas, camellia blooms don't typically have fragrance. It turns out that hybridizers have been working on incorporating fragrance with Camellia lutchuensis—a shrub from Japan that has a small white bloom and sweet fragrance. Nuccio said there are several fragrant camellias on the market, such as 'High Fragrance,' a pink bloomer, 'Scentsation' and 'Herme.'

At February’s monthly meeting, Nuccio displayed numerous potted camellias, which were later raffled off.

Nuccio discussed the three camellia species most often used are C. sasanqua, C. japonica, and C. reticulata. The reticulatas are from China and make handsome, upright plants with beautiful blooms, particularly when hybridized with japonicas.

Sasanquas' profuse blooms look like wild roses, he noted, and they're sun hardy, have small leaves, and a wide range of growth habits. These plants usually bloom early, beginning in September.

Japonicas, from Japan and coastal China, produce a classic formal flower (think peonies). They need sun protection, are cold hardy, bushy, and eight to ten feet tall. “A wonderful camellia to consider,” Nuccio said, is “'Prima Ballerina',” an upright, slow grower. 'Pink Perfection' has a formal double flower with a shell pink color.

Nuccio noted that camellias have a spring growth spurt between March and June, then take a breather before a second cycle of growth beginning mid July. “This summer’s growth is next year’s blooms,” he said, and suggested that pruning should be in April.

Potting soil should be amended with peat moss, and he suggested applying dry fertilizer, such as cottonseed meal three times a year, starting in February and then eight weeks apart. If you fertilize once a year, he said, Spring is the most important time to do so.

Many of the medium to slow growing camellias are suitable for containers, and Nuccio suggested refreshing the soil every now and then. If planting seeds, they should be used no later than a month after being harvested, due to a short shelf life. Expect seedlings to take four to five years to flower, he said.

Nuccio’s Nursery also specializes in azaleas. An easy to grow variety, according to Tom, is the pink 'George Tabor,' which takes sun beautifully, flowers profusely, and is the hardiest one they grow. When customers tell him that they just can’t seem to grow an azalea, he said, “I give them a George Tabor. It’s tough as nails, and I tell them, 'If you can’t grow this, don’t come back.'” 'Red Bird' is another popular variety, because it has a good reputation for tolerating “lousy water” and grows in full sun.

Tom noted that some azaleas bloom only around Easter and others are longer blooming, or have a secondary flush of blooms in the fall. The longest blooming azaleas are the Belgian hybrids, Nuccio noted, including 'California Sunset,' 'California Peach,' and 'California Pink Dawn.'

Most azaleas require shade. He suggests using two-thirds peat moss with one-third soil, and pruning once a year in May or June. The number one killer of azaleas, Nuccio said, is keeping the plant too wet. Another problem is planting too deep.

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