Whites, pinks, reds, corals, blushes, and every shade in between can describe the colors of Camellia blossoms. Some flowers boast bi and tri-colors with interesting variegation and petal arrangements. Single, double, semi-double, anemone and peony shaped blooms abound on glossy green plants from fall into spring proper. Here in the Deep South, late February through March is a parade of parades in the flora world, since the camellias are at their bloom time height.
Camellia japonica is the most commonly associated Latin name for the typical camellias we find in our gardens and landscape. Native all over eastern Asia and the islands of Japan, this species was first introduced to the Southern landscape via plantations near port cities such as Savannah, Mobile, NOLA, and Charleston, where Middleton Plantation, still houses some of the first camellias brought to the “New World” from Europe, where they were the en vogue oriental import.
New England greenhouses grew camellias in America’s Revolutionary and Antebellum days, since the species couldn’t take the extreme cold of the North. Finding suitable soil in Dixie, camellias began to thrive in our acidic soil and mild winters. The subject of gorgeous art pieces and painted porcelain, camellias continued to grace the gardens of Southern gardens and homes as they had in England, Belgium, France and Italy. Pierre-Joseph Redoute, court painter to Marie Antoinette and Empress Josephine, painted a study of camellias for his royal patrons, remaining a most desirable image for botanical collectors and admirers.
Probably first brought to the States mistakenly as tea plants or seeds, the Camellia’s first cousin is Camellia sinensis or Tea. Yes sir! This is the family from which tea leaves are harvested, brewed, and consumed, and we all know how much this Farmer loves his tea!
Moving on, I am often asked what is my favorite flower. Technically a hard question to answer, though, a white camellia resounds in my mind as the correct response. When a white camellia blooms, and no cold or blight has tampered it, it may be the purest white I can imagine on this earth and simply breathtaking to “mine eyes.” A double variety with golden stamens or the C. sassanqua ‘Kanjiro’ and old faithfuls such as ‘Victory White’ and ‘Alba Superba’ move me to reverent awe over the beauty one flower can possess.
White camellias are also a major part of Southern literature, with their prominence in To Kill a Mockingbird, probably my favorite book, and thus, further resonating the white camellia as my favorite.
“He (Jem) did not begin to calm down until he had cut the tops off every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned, until the ground was littered with green buds and leaves…”
“Atticus reached down and picked up the candy box. He handed it to Jem. Jem opened to box. Inside, surrounded by wads of damp cotton, was a white, waxy, perfect camellia. It was a Snow-on-the-Mountain. Jem’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Old hell-devil, old hell-devil!” he screamed, flinging it down. “Why can’t she leave me alone?””…
Please do read this section of Miss Lee’s novel, which is heavy laden with imagery, symbolism, and Southern allegory.
Of course, camellias are super for their decorative prowess as well as outdoor aesthetics. A bowl filled with floating camellias is just stunning. Dishes or short vases brimming with camellia blooms are quite beautiful and seasonally apropos for this time of year. I’ve seen hurricanes surrounded by camellia blossom wreaths and huge platters mounded with gorgeous blooms that were absolutely gorgeous. A mixed composition camellia, lily of the valley, winter honeysuckle, Japanese magnolia, cherry buds, and forsythia as a Lenten Season arrangement remains one of my favorite compositions in flora décor.
However you choose to use camellias in your home’s landscape and garden, remember to give them a high shade home (under pecans and pines preferably) and adequate water. Full winter sun or an eastern exposure can be quite accommodating for camellias as well. a good mix of clay, organic material, and sand is an ideal soil combo for these plants. Moderately fast in growth habit, you’ll be able to enjoy camellias within a few years of planting if not sooner. Explore your favorite blossom types and the different bloom times and your garden will be graced with these fabulous flowers from September to March with these symbols of devotion, protection, and everlasting union.