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Gardener Steph on the Camellia Flower

Nov 22, 2013 | Horticulture

Gardener Steph on the Camellia Flower


As the gardens wind down with the coming of winter many gardeners start looking for plants to help extend the growing season. Camellias were once thought of as the jewels of the southern gardens but we are proud to have some beautiful specimens starting to appear here in the north. Camellias are evergreen shrubs or small trees with incredibly large showy flowers. Flower color ranges from pink to white to red. Some yellow varieties exist but they are rare and usually only found in Southern China and Vietnam. They are fast growers, requiring significant rainfall and acidic soils.

These beautiful plants imported from Asia are often called tea flowers because of Camellia sinensis or black tea. The ornamental Camellia japonica and their hybrids are bred for showier flowers rather than tea production. Camellias were cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan for centuries before they were imported to Europe. Europeans often referred to them as Japan rose. With the expansion of the tea trade in the 18th century, new varieties came to England imported through the East India Tea Company. Many of the varieties were then named after patrons of the gardeners who grew them.

Eventually, the Camellia found its way from England to America in 1797 when Colonel John Stevens brought the flower as part of an effort to grow attractions within Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ. Unfortunately, early varieties were not hardy enough to withstand the cold climate of New Jersey. Camellias remained as popular conservatory specimens. Eventually, they fell out of fashion with the introduction of orchids.

Thanks to decades of extensive breeding, we are starting to see hardier varieties making their way into our landscapes. Many hardy spring-blooming camellias were survivors of crosses made in the 1960s by Clifford Parks, a renowned breeder. Meanwhile, William Ackerman developed many hardy fall-blooming varieties during the same time around Longwood gardens.

While winter blooming Camellias are still not suited for our climate where flowers can be damaged by frost. Fall-blooming Camellias are a safe bet for showy blooms. Be sure to plant these early in the season so that they can develop extensive root systems before freezing. Spring varieties are also becoming more common in the northern landscape. Unfortunately one never knows when a late spring frost will hit the north east. About 3,000 cultivars and hybrids of Camellias have been selected today.

We have four different varieties of Camellia growing in the park ‘Winter’s Star,’ ‘Northern Exposure, ‘April Rose’ and ‘Winter’s Charm’. ‘Northern Exposure’ has single white flowers and has proven to be a reliable bloomer on its third year in the park. You can see these growing at the 26th and Madison entrance in full bloom at the moment. ‘Winter’s Star’ is a single pink variety and these are growing along Broadway and 23rd St. These beautiful flowers will continue blooming through December until temperatures become too cold.’Winter’s Charm’ was just planted around the fountain and we hope this pink double proves cold hardy. We are trialing our first spring blooming Camellia this year, C.April Rose’ is one of park’s introductions. Look for it blooming on the east side of the Oval Lawn this spring.

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