Members in Action

No Fading Beauty
Hardier Camellias Can Maintain Their Elegance

By Kathy Van Mullekom
reprinted with permission of The Daily Press, Inc., 1999
Camellias blossom with an old-fashioned charm few flowers can match.

They look elegant any way you display them - pinned to your lapel floating in a bowl of water or formally arranged for a dinner centerpiece.

They are prized sights in the winter garden, unfolding their petals when most other plants are still asleep.

Locally, camellias fell out of favor when severe cold spells in the '70s and '80s severely damaged them. Most camellias recovered, sending up new healthy foliage from hardy roots, but gardeners turned to other hardier plant material.

Hybridization, however, has yielded tougher varieties, making many of them hardy to near zero-degree temperatures and sometimes below. And groups such as the Virginia Camellia Society and the American Camellia Society work diligently helping home gardeners learn how to successfully grow camellias.

Hardiness in a camellia depends partly on acclimation, says Bob Black, plant propagator at Bennett's Creek Wholesale Nursery in Suffolk and first vice president of the local camellia society. If autumn brings a light frost and temperatures that gradually fall through the 20s into the teens and near zero by mid-January, camellias will suffer some bud damage but the foliage will remain almost untouched. If a warm and dry fall season occurs and temperatures suddenly drop to 10, camellias see severe flower bud and above-ground foliage damage.

Bob Black and many hobbyist camellia growers favor the japonica varieties because they are hardier and showy looking with large flowers. Sasanquas typically produce smaller single-petal flowers, and are prized for the color they bring the fall garden.

Bob Black Tends His Greenhouse Camellias
Bob Black Tends His Greenhouse Camellias

Here are a few camellia varieties Bob and other camellia society members especially recommend from the hundreds available for home gardens in Hampton Roads:

  • Lady Clare - Hardy down to 0 and -5, this camellia japonica starts blooming Thanksgiving Day or early December so you have semi-double, rose-pink flowers for holiday decorating. Bob has watched a 10-foot Lady Clare in Suffolk produce 30-40 flowers in January and then yield another 20-30 in February when temperatures turn milder. "If you could have only one camellia in your garden, I would recommend Lady Clare," he says. Other pinks to grow: Kumasaka, Debutante, Magnoliaflora, Mrs. Lyman Clarke, Berenice Boddy and R.L. Wheeler.
  • Sea Foam - A hardy, vigorous grower, this camellia japonica produces white formal-double flowers. Leucantha is another prized white japonica.
  • Paulette Goddard - Among the hardiest red japonica, it has medium to large dark-red blooms that vary from semi-double to loose peony-like in form. Other reds to grow: Professor Sargent, C.M. Hovey, Glen 40, Blood of China.
  • Our Linda - This fall-blooming sasanqua produces pale lavender-pink flowers.
  • Variegated: Governor Mouton, Les Marbury, Lady Vansittart and Herme (Jordan's Pride).
  • Big & hardy: These cold-hardy camellias produce the biggest flowers - usually 4-inch, says Bob, who gets 7-inch flowers in his greenhouse-grown plants: R.L. Wheeler and R.L. Wheeler Variegated, Faith, Lady Clare, Tomorrow, Betty Sheffield, Leucantha, Debutante, Drama Girl, Professor Sargent, Tiffany, Kramer's Supreme and Guilio Nuccio-Variegated.

    "If anyone asks me what I like in a camellia, I tell them the bigger the flower the better," says Jim Barnes, president (1999) of the 200-member Virginia Camellia Society.

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


    The Virginia Camellia Society website provides an excellent list of sources for the care of camellias. For more information, visit our education subpage with a click to the button below!

    However, here is a quick list of tips from the Virginia Camellia Society and the American Camellia Society on how to plant and care for camellias:

  • Common Japanese camellias - camellia japonica - need dappled shade.
  • Fall-blooming sasanqua camellias tolerate some sun.
  • All camellias need good drainage. They resent water-logged soil, preferring light, loose soil. If the growing site is too soggy, planting beds should be raised about 8 inches to ensure good drainage.
  • Camellias like mulch, especially pine needles. A layer of 4 inches of pine needles is ideal. Do not use material that packs or prevents water from penetrating the soil.
  • They need slightly acidic soil, a pH of 6-6.5.
  • The plants like protection from strong wind and morning sun.
  • Dig planting hole two feet wider than root ball. To prevent sinking of the plant, do not place the rootball on loose soil or on organic matter; leave soil in center of hole undisturbed.
  • Place rootball on undisturbed soil; top of ball should be slightly above ground. More camellias are killed from planting too deep than from all other causes. Fill around the rootball with a mixture of good-draining soil, shredded pine bark and perlite.
  • To plant in containers, use 10% coarse sand and 90% shredded pine bark. The bark decomposes into a soilless mix. Protect container-grown camellias when temperatures get below 20F.
  • After blooming, fertilize with 10-10-10 and again in June. Or, use timed-release Osmocote 18-6-12 once.

  • To deter moles, dig a 4-inch-deep trench in the soil around the perimeter of the rootball and refill trench with a 1-to-9 mixture of small, sharp stones (granite) and topsoil. The sharp stones irritate the voles skin.

  • Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias. More than 1,000 color photos and 19 color paintings illustrate the 304 pages that define camellia varieties and their growing needs. $40. Local bookstores; Timber Press, 800.327-5680 or
  • Camellias: Complete Guide to Their Cultivation and Use. Discusses pests and diseases and outlines camellia hardiness for different zones. $35. Local bookstores or Timber Press (see above).
  • Growing Camellias. Written by Margaret Tapley; printed by Cassell Publishing. $15. Norfolk Botanical Garden (, Norfolk, Virginia.

    The Virginia Camellia Society 2004

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