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Snowy Workhorse
Camellia Blooms Add Color to the Dormant Season

By Kathy Van Mullekom
reprinted with permission of Daily Press
Camellias look delicate and dainty, but they can be a real "workhorse" in the garden. Eric Hillerman has some of those hard-working camellias putting on a show of color at his home in York County.

He especially likes Showa-no-sakae, a Camellia sasanqua, because it begins producing purplish-pink flowers in September and keeps going until late December.

"It's showy and one great camellia," says Hillerman. He's a member of the Virginia Camellia Society and has won several awards for outstanding blossoms grown on some of his 100 camellias.

Eric Hillerman of the Virginia Camellia Society
PLENTY OF BLOOM TIME  Eric Hillerman shows off his Showa-no-sakae camellias at his York county home.
He likes this variety in part because it blooms from September through December.

The gardener likes the variegated Daikagura for its peony-like red flowers splotched with white. Its fall blooms also come and go for more than four months.

Camellias are relatively fuss-free plants that color your garden with reds, pinks and whites when many shrubs and trees are going dormant for the season.

The Camellia family is divided into two major types. Both produce their own brand of sought-after flowers. In addition to these two main groups, there are hybrids. Shop garden centers now for a range of bloom times in camellias, and you can have flowers in your yard from September through early April. The plants also can be grown in large containers on decks and patios.

C. sasanqua features smaller, but abundant flowers on stems filled with somewhat small leaves. The plant flowers in fall. Sasanquas grow 3 to 6 feet tall, making them smart choices for small gardens. Nice ones to grow include white Snow Flurry, pink Chansonette and red Yuletide.

"The sasanquas grow slowly and stay in scale longer without a lot of pruning," says Hillerman.

"They also fill a niche because they tolerate sun. And they are good for hedges and big screens."

C. japonica will delight you with bigger, bolder blooms, sometimes as wide as 6 and 8 inches. The leaves are larger and stay a glossy dark green throughout the year. Some japonicas grow as tall as small trees. These camellias must get good shade, especially from the hot afternoon sun. Nice selections among japonicas include variegated pink Les Marbury, dark pink Crimson Candles and white Nuccio's Gem.

When you shop for camellias, Hillerman recommends avoiding varieties that flower in January and February. The flowers on these mid-season bloomers tend to get brown and ugly from frost damage.

He also suggests you start your camellia garden with mature plants that have healthy root systems. Younger plants are more susceptible to vole damage, he says. To help prevent voles from munching on the roots, mix small sharp gravel with your soil before refilling your planting hole.

Once his camellias finishing blooming, Hillerman feeds them and does some light pruning. He mainly removes inward branches to let light filter through the plant.

"Prune so a bird can fly in and light on a limb," he says.

Other than that, he sits back and enjoys the camellias for their form and color.

"They are a tough plant that tolerates many types of abuse," he says.

"Camellias are not the only flowering plants in my garden. Other beautiful plants have their place, too. But, for me, the camellia is a must-have plant that is loaded with many rewards."

- Kathy Van Mullekom can be reached at 757.247.4781 or by email at kvanmullekom@



    * Do you know the origin of those little shriveled-up leaves in your tea bags? They come from a large shrub -- or small tree -- called Camellia sinensis. The tea camellia is the great-great-great-great ancestor of the camellias as we know them today. It originated in areas of China.

    * Nicknamed the tea plant, Camellia (ka-me'li-a) sinensis (sy-nen'sis) grows 6-12 feet tall and 5-7 feet wide. It's rounded and open and informal in appearance. It features glossy green leaves and fragrant cream-white flowers in the fall. The plant likes part shade or full shade. It needs soil with good drainage and medium fertility with humus added. Prune it only for shaping.The plant is cold hardy in Zones 7-9; the Peninsula is located in Zone 7. The tea camellia is good for informal shrub borders, natural hedges and privacy screening. It also makes a nice background for herb gardens.

    * You can see specimens of the tea camellia at Norfolk Botanical Garden, and you can purchase the plant at garden centers such as Smithfield Gardens on Route 17 in Suffolk.

  • Camellia Forest Nursery offers these tips for making green tea from the leaves of Camellia sinensis:

    * Pick tender young growth by hand. Young shoots with two to three leaves are recommended. Place the shoots in shade for a few hours to dry any water on them.

    * Next, bruise the leaves to allow the fermentation process to begin. To bruise the leaves, roll several shoots between your hands until the leaves darken and become crinkled, but not broken into pieces. Repeat this process until all the leaves are bruised.

    * Ferment the leaves by placing thin layers of leaves on a tray in a shady location. After two to three days, the leaves are ready to dry.

    * Dry the leaves in an oven set at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. This step removes water in the leaves and stops the fermentation process. Now the tea is ready to use or store in an airtight container.

    * Visit the mail-order camellia nursery online at or call (919) 968-0504.

  • Here are some tips on planting and caring for camellias:

    * Most camellias prefer partial shade. Camellia sasanqua tolerates more sun than the japonica varieties.

    * Give the plants well-drained, slightly acidic soil. A soil pH of 6.0-6.5 is best. Their soil needs are similar to those of azaleas, rhododendrons and gardenias.

    * When you plant a camellia, add organic matter to the planting area. Work 2 to 4 inches of peat moss, leaf mold, aged ground bark, old sawdust or cow manure into the soil to improve drainage and soil fertility.

    * Plant camellias in late fall through early spring. Dig a hole 2 feet wider than the root ball. If the root ball is tight and the roots are growing in a circle, use your fingers or a small trowel to rough it up and tease the roots in an outward direction. This allows the roots to penetrate and grow into the surrounding soil.

    * Adequate moisture is needed until new roots develop. Keep them moist but not soggy, wetting the soil to a depth of 14 to 18 inches.

    * Mulch with 2 to 4 inches of pine straw, bark or other organic material. Do not use peat moss as mulch because it dries out and can be difficult to wet.

    * Fertilize camellias in spring after they finish flowering. Use cottonseed meal or a 10-10-10 fertilizer. You also can use a specially formulated fertilizer made for acid-loving plants.

    * Camellia growers often use a process called "gibbing" to force japonicas into earlier bloom. They use a gibberellic acid, a natural growth-regulating chemical to do it.

    * For more information, visit the Virginia Camellia Society at and the American Camellia Society at

    * Sources: Virginia and American camellia societies

  • * Learn how to prune and care for your camellias during a workshop sponsored by the Virginia Camellia Society at 7 p.m. Feb. 17, 2004 at Norfolk Botanical Garden. Open to public. 441-5838 or 625-0374.

  • * The Hofheimer Camellia Garden at Norfolk Botanical Garden features thousands of fall- and winter-blooming camellias. More than 450 varieties are represented.

    In 1997, the Association of Botanical Gardens and the Arboreta's North American Plant Collection Consortium Garden named the camellia garden an official North American Collection. Only 10 gardens nationwide carry that designation and only two of those focus on camellias.

    * The botanical gardens are located at 6700 Azalea Garden Road, Exit 279 (Norview Avenue) off Interstate 64 in Norfolk. Hours this time of year are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 adults, $5 seniors and active-duty military and $4 ages 6-16. Call 441-5830 or visit

    Kathy Van Mullekom is the gardening, home, and fashion columnist for the Daily Press, 7505 Warwick Blvd, Newport News, Va. 23607. Contact her at, Fax: 757.247.4848 or Phone: 757-247-4781, and online at, or

    The Virginia Camellia Society 2004

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