By Val Whitmyre, U. C. Master Gardener
When winter days turn dark, I long for masses of color in my garden. Last February 7th, I went to the annual Napa Valley Camellia Show at the Napa Senior Center. When I entered, I was momentarily overwhelmed with the shades of red, pink and white that filled the room. I learned that there are more varieties of this evergreen plant than I could have imagined.
Three species were displayed in this show: Camellia japonica, C. reticulata and hybrids (a cross between two species). I already knew about my favorites, the sasanqua camellias. In all, there are 80 species of this beautiful plant, and more than 3,000 varieties.
Native to Asia and easily grown in the Napa Valley, the camellia is one of nature’s examples of perfect symmetry. Like the identical wings of the butterfly, the various forms of the camellia flower are perfectly shaped, with golden stamens as punctuation marks that say, “Look at me.”
Camellias of the japonica species have six different flower forms. Some flowers are rose like; others resemble anemones or peonies. The three other forms are known as single, semi-double and formal double. The upright japonica varieties may grow to 20 feet or more. Drive around Napa’s Old Town to see some of the older camellias that have grown into trees.
According to the Camellia Society, growers dream of a yellow camellia. So far, there are a few yellow camellias, but the color does not persist in hybridization. The reds and pinks are more dominant. I had not been a fan of camellias because I tend to plant for either fruit or fragrance, but I learned that a few of them are fragrant. Camellia sasanqua ‘Hana Jiman’ is one. The species camellias C. kissii and C. grijsii are also fragrant.
By disbudding (removing buds), the remaining flowers may be improved in size, texture or color. Some growers remove all but a few buds to produce a show-quality flower. Years ago, my aunt had a nursery in Trinidad, California. She floated a few of her outstanding camellias in a small pond below a waterfall. They were the size of salad plates.
Applying gibberellic acid, the plant hormone, in minute doses to a tiny break below the flower bud can also affect the flowers. It may induce earlier blooms, increase the texture and size of the blooms and sometimes change the color. Known as gibbing, this practice is done only on mature plants.
Camellias like to grow in filtered shade in acidic, well-drained soil. The best composition is half organic mix and half garden soil. When planting a camellia, be sure the base of the trunk remains above soil level. Surround with a two-inch layer of organic mulch. Because the roots are shallow, do not dig around your camellia. Fertilize them three times a year, in early spring, early July and in the fall before November.
Camellias like the same growing conditions and nutrients as azaleas and gardenias but are easier to grow, needing no pruning except for an occasional shaping. Good drainage is a must. Use horticultural oil to take care of the occasional aphid or scale attack.
Camellia petal blight, a fungal disease, is common. Petals turn brown and drop, and then water splashes the blight back up to the plant, which perpetuates the disease. Keep the fallen petals raked up and put in the yard waste bin. Camellia japonica loses the entire spent flower at once, while the sasanquas drop their flowers petal by petal. Yellow leaves could indicate a lack of iron, a shortage of water in the summer or winter, or water-logged roots.
One hybrid that produces spectacular blooms is C. reticulata. Large wavy petals with highly evident gold stamens are common. The foliage is lanky and not as desirable in the landscape as C. japonica, but the showy flowers compensate.
I like the adaptability of C. sasanqua even though its flowers aren’t large enough to be show quality. The sasanqua may be used as a groundcover, shrub, hedge, espalier, bonsai or container plant. I planted the ‘Setsugekka’ variety in my old Weber barbecue. It arches gracefully and should stay in the barbecue for a few years.
Visit a nursery now to view camellias in bloom, and watch for the date of this year’s Napa Valley Camellia Show for a colorful winter treat.