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GUEST COLUMNIST: Ten Must-Have Camellias for San Diego County

By Dean Turney.

If you'd like to ring in the new year with a new addition in your garden, this is the time to bring home a new camellia (or two). And with this primer on how to establish healthy camellias, along with a list of some of the top camellias to grow in our region, you just might find yourself preparing to welcome new camellias again this time next year.

As with any plant, one must give camellias a good start at life to get them established. Given the right location, soil, nutrients, and water, the true hardiness of camellias can be realized. If you doubt this, take a walk through one of San Diego’s older neighborhoods. You will find camellias taller than the house, covered in blooms with shiny green foliage. While the house needs painting and the grass is dead with a car or two parked on it, the camellia, probably ‘Debutante,’ is established. You could take a chainsaw to that camellia and cut it off a foot above the ground, give it some water, and it will grow back. If you dig it out with enough root ball intact, you could take it home with you, plant it in your garden and it would survive. Once established, camellias are drought tolerant, low maintenance, and disease resistant.

Camellia Establishment 101: Location, Mulch, and High Ground

'Yuletide.' Image courtesy of Daderot.

That said, how do camellias become “established?” First and foremost: location, location, location! Camellias need indirect bright sun light—place them on the north side of the house, under tall trees, or a lath-covered patio. The closer to the beach one lives, the more sun camellias can tolerate. They say the redder the blooms, the more sun a camellia can withstand. Red-blooming camellia ‘Ace o’ Hearts’ can take full sun even in the east county area, as will camellias in the species sasanqua (sometimes sold as “sun camellias”). A good sasanqua to keep your eye out for is ‘Yuletide,’ a very tough little plant sporting bright red blooms with bright yellow stamens, usually in full bloom in December.

After location, one must be aware of the soil into which the plant is to be placed. Camellias want it acidic. And they want that acid from mulch. So you want to top dress them with mulch when you plant them. And you want to reapply that mulch as it breaks down. The mulch will help control the moisture, it will reduce the amount of water needed to “establish,” the plant, and it will feed the camellia—meaning less time, work, and money for you. Plus, the mulch will keep the plant healthy and therefore more disease-free.

Camellias are not bog plants! They do not want their feet soaking in water. They breathe through their roots. They are very shallow rooted. This makes them easy to transplant, but also explains why they suffer if planted too deep or in heavy clay soil. The sure-fire way to kill your camellia or at best make it very unhappy is to bury it too deep. With all that good mulch you are using to plant your camellia, you can expect the plant to sink as the mulch decays. Therefore, plant camellias high, not on drugs (nor fertilizer), but above the normal level of your surrounding ground; about two inches is good. Having placed your camellia in the proper location with a good amount of mulch and at an elevated position, you are well on your way to having an “established” camellia.

Now it is time to sit back and let your camellia do its “establishing” thing. You will be required to intervene at least once a week if the plant is not on automatic watering. You want to keep it moist, but not soggy; the mulch should help with this, but don’t drown the camellia. Remember—it must breathe. If in doubt, feel under the mulch. If it’s moist, go watch TV. If it feels dry, just add water. Some plants require frequent feeding, but not camellias. Do not overfeed your camellias—you will be working too hard and they will not appreciate the attention! The most you need to do is feed with cottonseed meal and a little iron three times a year, but not during football season (for real). The first feeding should occur around St. Patrick’s Day (think green!). The second feeding will be near Memorial Day, when they should be growing. Finally, give them another feeding around the Fourth of July. Celebrate! And start watching for the buds to form at the leaf joints.

Ten Tried and True Camellias for San Diego County

The following is a list of ten camellias that will not only thrive in San Diego County, but will supply many beautiful blooms. I chose these varieties for their hardiness, their readiness to bloom, and their willingness to survive even with some mistreatment. And with these ten plants, you should have blooms from late November until March.

Please note that there are three species of camellia: japonica, reticulata, and sasanqua. They are all camellias, just as oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines are all types of citrus. All that said, let’s take a closer look at my list of ten, which includes eight varieties of japonica and two reticulata (you'll recall that we mentioned one variety of sasquana, 'Yuletide,' earlier).

Camellia reticulata: The Showstoppers

First, we will look at the grapefruits of the camellia world, the reticulatas. If I had to sell off all my camellias except one, I would have to keep ‘Valentine Day.’ It is a large pink formal double bloom of reticulata parentage. All that means is that the bloom consists of many petals in nice neat rows with a center that looks like a rose. Some will even look like a pink rose on a pink plate (that’s the way I like it best). I give mine a lot of light, but I live close to the coast. Reticulatas have an open growth habit, so you can see through the branches all year long. It grows fairly quickly into a mature plant and is great in the landscape.

Another reticulata on the list is ‘Dr. Clifford Parks.’ It produces giant ball-like dark red blooms with yellow stamens intermixed, and it also has that fast, open growth habit of most reticulates. Plant these two in a location that will impress those winter guests.

Camellia japonica: Great Landscape Options

Japonicas are more common and, like other camellias, can be found in most garden shops by late fall. They tend to grow densely, making great hedges that bloom. Also, they can be great for blocking the neighbors or unsightly objects. They can be kept short or allowed to become small (twenty-foot) trees. I say prune them in March to fit your space and keep them there. As with all happy camellias, they will keep their leaves all year. Remember the shallow roots? Camellias will not damage your foundation. You can plant them next to the house or driveway as long as you leave room for the termite tent and painter (after all, this is So Cal). Camellias like to be a little root bound, so they are great for planters. Only ten feet between the neighbor’s house and yours? Think camellia!

'Silver Waves.' Image courtesy of Drew Avery.

Silver Waves’ has large, white, single blooms of wavy petals with a stand of yellow stamens in the middle, all on an evergreen plant of shiny green leaves. What more could you want for an impressive landscape plant? It has a long blooming season, November through March.

Guilio Nuccio’ is named after one of the owners of Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altadena, California. It has large coral rose-red blooms. ‘Guilio Nuccio’ is a great grower and bloomer, and I’m sure it makes its namesake proud. For something different, buy it variegated (red blooms with white blotches).

Tiffany’ has large, light pink blooms on that characteristic japonica plant. I might sound repetitive, but this is also a great landscape variety.

Mrs. D.W. Davis’ has blush pink—almost white—very large blooms on dark green foliage. Need I say, "A great landscaper"?

Julius Nuccio’ has wavy dark red petals and grows upright. This is a fairly new introduction to the camellia world with large blooms with bright yellow stamens that will jump out at your visitors, demanding attention.

Margaret Davis’...what a lady! Imagine creamy white carnations edged in dark pink on a Ficus benjamina. That is ‘Margaret Davis.’ I have four—one is not enough!

I end my list with two new introductions to the camellia world: ‘High Fragrance’ and ‘Minato-No-Akebono.’ While most camellias have no odor, these are both hybrids with a common parent, the fragrant species Camellia lutchuensis. ‘High Fragrance’ has pale ivory-pink blooms with deeper pink at the edges. ‘Minato-No-Akebono’ has bright pink single blooms. ‘Minato-No-Akebono’ tends to bloom early, while ‘High Fragrance’ blooms closer to mid-season. Since these are hybrids, do not give them as much fertilizer as the others. For the first couple of years, you may just want to wave the fertilizer over them before dropping it on your japonicas. The hybrids also tend to be slightly touchier as they get “established.”

As you may have noticed, my list contains red blooms, pink blooms, white blooms, and blooms with the three colors mixed. What about yellow? Yellows are on their way, thanks to many hybridizers who are hard at work. As of yet, there are a few yellowish blooms available, but only the species C. nitidissima has truly bright yellow (albeit small) blooms; however, it can be challenging to grow.

As a final note, disbud your camellias if you want bigger blooms. (You would do it to your fruit trees.) Watch for scale and mites; if found, you can remove the affected leaves and spray with soapy water or paraffin oil (or, if you must, pesticide as directed). Neither scale nor mites will kill your plant overnight, so don’t fret. You have a while to solve the problem.

Late fall is the time of year to purchase new camellias, so be on the lookout for any of the varieties on this list of ten at your favorite nursery, or head over to Nuccio's Nursery (where you can find all of these varieties and more). And if you have any questions, remember the San Diego Camellia Society Show and Sale is February 2-3, 2019 in Room 101 at Casa del Prado in Balboa Park. You can also contact us to learn more about choosing and caring for your camellias.

Dean Turney is 2018 president of the San Diego Camellia Society and frequently gives presentations and workshops about camellias.

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