When Alexander Dumas wrote “La Dame aux Camellias” (“The Lady of the Camellias”), he created a fascinating story worthy of the grand opera diva Sarah Bernhardt herself. An ailing but beautiful and sought-after French courtesan, Camille communicated her ability to entertain her lovers by wearing a white camellia; a red one indicated she was indisposed.
Obviously, Dumas’ knowledge of horticulture did not equal his grasp of French society. First, camellia blossoms indubitably drop off their stems and are completely unsatisfactory to place in ones lapel or pin on one’s bosom. Second, unlike La Dame, camellias growing in proper conditions are remarkably hardy and long-lived plants when given a modicum of care.
When Louis XVI sent Andre Michaux to the New World in search of valuable plants, the explorer brought along “hostess gifts” – exotic botanical specimens, which so delighted property owners that they granted him collecting privileges.
In 1786, he planted four camellias at Middleton Place, and one, “Reine des Fleurs,” still delights visitors today – this after the devastation of the Civil War and its long aftermath when the gardens had no care and more than 200 years of deluges, droughts and hurricanes.
There are perhaps 280 species in the genus Camellia that are native to the varied terrain of southeast Asia, from mountaintops to semi-tropical isles. They are hardy in zones 7 and 8 and prefer a well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.
Like many Southerners, some are not at their best if grown in full sun; they are extremely happy when growing under tall pines whose loose canopy gives them enough light for flower initiation without scorching their leaves and whose falling needles add organic matter and help keep the soil slightly moist and at a preferred pH.
In South Carolina, we are most familiar with three Camellia species; C. japonica, C. sasanqua, and C. sinensis. The matriarch of the clan, Camellia japonica, which has the largest and showiest blossoms, is deservedly somewhat picky about her environment, performing far superiorly when sheltered from full sun. This species has larger leaves than C. sasanqua and sinensis and can easily reach 20 feet tall.
Breeders introduce new varieties daily and you can find smaller specimens that may be a better fit for your garden space. Be sure to plant them far enough away from each other and structures so that they get good air movement. This is the latest blooming of our camellias and worth waiting for. But even within this group of camellias, there are early, middle- and late-blooming cultivars available so you can have dramatic flower displays throughout the winter and early spring.
Many old-fashioned gardens have hedges of earlier blooming C. sasanqua that has varieties that scoff at full sun. Their blossoms are smaller and simpler and often have a light spicy fragrance. Their tolerance of full sun often allows them to set hundreds of flower buds and make a dazzling display of color in the fall.
Present in every S.C. household, but often in the pantry and not in the garden, is Camellia sinensis, whose tender leaves are harvested throughout the world for tea.
Often overlooked as a garden plant, C. sinensis has small white or pink flowers with prominent yellow stamens that are attractive to insects. This species is smaller in every way, topping out at about 10 feet, and can easily be maintained even smaller. The Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island produces the refreshing American Classic Tea, the basis of iced tea, our state’s official “hospitality beverage.”
The most important aspects of camellias’ care begin with planning and planting. Select a variety that performs well in your part of the state. Visit http://www.americancamellias.org/ and select “Clubs and Societies” to find friendly aficionados near you. South Carolina even has its own tab! For the correct planting and care guidelines and tips on diseases, insects, and pruning, Clemson Extension’s own Home & Garden Information Center, http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/, has numerous factsheets on growing camellias in the unusual and fluctuating conditions that we call “normal” in the Palmetto State.
Hope that you spend this winter sporting a white camellia (wired on its stem) as an indication of your good health.