I love camellias. And this time of year, they are on full show. Just about everything in the garden is dead, except camellias. And here they come, blooming, bursting with color and showing everything else up. Even the unprecedented Charleston snow didn’t stop them.
My Daddy used to say, “It’s a Southern social must to have camellias in the yard.” I grew up surrounded by camellias. They were my Daddy’s passion. He was a camellia curator, collecting over 300 varieties and growing over 600 plants in our back yard on James Island. He developed and registered 7 new varieties, one of which, Georgia National Fair, received national recognition by the American Camellia Society as the New Outstanding Camellia Seedling in 2008. I even have a camellia named after me.
Until my father passed away, I had unlimited access to these wonderful flowers. Blooming from Labor Day to Mother’s Day, we always had camellia blooms in the house and Daddy graciously shared his blooms with his friends, the community, churches, and even restaurants. While I will never be the expert he was, I want to have an abundance of blooms again. I want to be able to go to the backyard, pick as many blooms as I can, and display them in camellia bowls, sweetgrass baskets or single vases. But I am learning it takes patience. As I try to grow and nurture my own small collection of camellias, it can be daunting to know exactly what to do to care for them. When I get overwhelmed I remember, it’s just a plant and treat it like you want to be treated. Not too much sun, a balanced diet, and just enough hydration. A good friend asked my Daddy once if she needed to feed her camellias, his reply was simple: “How you would feel if you weren’t fed for a year?”.
Here are some simple tips on camellias. If you don’t have a camellia in your garden, now is the time to get one. All the local garden centers are getting their shipments in and if you have a favorite camellia, they can even order it for you. Also, for $10 a year, you can join the Coastal Carolina Camellia Society . Monthly, you will get tips on camellia care and a few times a year they will have plant sales and you can get camellias, grown locally by local experts, at bargain prices. And if you have camellias, these few tips (from the American Camellia Society) will help make sure they stay healthy and happy!
- Don’t plant too deep. The top of the root ball should be slightly above the soil level.
- Plant in partial shade (50-70% shade).
- Water and Drainage. Camellias like moist but not soggy soil. Too much water and the leaves can get brown and oddly enough look like they have not gotten enough water. I learned this the hard way.
- Mulch. Two to four inches of pine straw, bark or other organic matter makes a good mulch.
- Fertilize in April. A slow release Osmocote, like 18-6-12, works well.
- Prune. An old saying is you want to be able to throw a cat through a camellia bush. Don’t try that, just create good air flow. Best time to prune is after they have bloomed.
- Pinch buds. If you want bigger blooms, disbud or remove buds where clusters exist, leaving only one to bloom. I like the look of multiple blooms, but this will help that single bud flourish.
- Pick up dead blooms. This can prevent disease.
Camellia collections in the South got their beginnings in Charleston in the early 1800’s. They have graced our homes for centuries, so don’t be afraid to start or add to your camellia collection. Find a shady spot in your yard and be a part of a Charleston tradition.