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Plant Profiles: Camellia

Camellia
Camellia

Drawing by Rene Eisenbart

BOTANICAL NAME:
CAMELLIA

SOUNDS LIKE:
Ophelia

TYPE:
Dense, upright, sometimes arching evergreen shrub, 4 to 9 feet

BASIC NEEDS:
Part shade, evenly moist soils

WORST ENEMY:
Bad drainage; dessicating winds

BEST ADVICE:
If winters are consistently around 0° F to -10° F, stick to C. oleifera; fertilize camellias sparingly

Broadleaf Evergreen

Meet Mr. Camellia.

He was a humble Jesuit pharmacist who never knew a self-indulgent moment and died in his early forties serving the poor. No doubt, Georg Josef Kamel would have approved of being associated with a soft-spoken, bashful shrub whose leaves, steeped in boiling water, soothed and sustained millions yet attracted little attention.

You don't mean that slut, the Camellia?

Not the one with the swelling buds getting ready to bare all in early spring, no. I mean the one that blooms in the fall with the single white fragrant flowers, whose leaves have for centuries been the commercial source of tea: Camellia sinensis.

The tea camellia was the first named species of this genus; it's the plant from which Earl Grey and all the other choice varieties of tea are made. It's very happy here in the Northwest, where it can grow to a richly textured six-foot plant and can bloom from mid-October through December.

Granted, its flowers are not as prominent as those of other camellias, in part because they're often hidden by leaves. But it's heat- and drought-tolerant, takes full sun, and can be harvested throughout the growing season to make either green or black tea.

Too utilitarian? The nursery trade suspected as much. Let me introduce the gorgeous foliage cultivar, C. sinensis 'Rosea'. It has seriously burgundy leaves that hold their blush all summer and pale pink flowers that emerge from deep maroon buds. 'Blushing Maiden' is another pink selection, with single, nodding blossoms and foliage touched with red.

Without a doubt, the most delicate, fragrant, and graceful camellias are the fall bloomers, including C. oleifera, the tea-oil camellia, hardy to -10°. Like C. sinensis, it has white, sweet-smelling, two-inch flowers, but these are prominently displayed on an open and slightly weeping five- to six-foot shrub. Its loose inclination, plus its skin-smooth, cinnamon bark, make this camellia a particularly good candidate as an espalier.

C. oleifera's extreme hardiness and long-blooming nature have made it a preferred parent for hybridizing. The result is a limitless number of cultivars in a range of flower forms, from single anemone to double peony.

The last word in fall-blooming camellias goes to the species C. sasanqua; if I gave it the first word there would be room for nothing else. Like C. oleifera, it's fabulously underused and, by November, has little competition in the way of flowering shrubs. It's characterized by fragrant and profuse blooms that do us the great favor of shattering as they age -- in contrast to the flowers of the popular Japanese camellia, C. japonica, which remains whole and rot on the vine.

C. sasanqua -- which can be easily identified by its fuzzy stems - is smaller and more refined in leaf and shape than C. japonica, with smaller flowers though no less diverse in color and form.

It comes in, oh, a couple of thousand cultivars.

What have I left out? Only enough to guarantee me execution by the International Camellia Society, whose plant register currently lists over 32,000 named varieites of Mr. Kamel's humble plant.

GIMME MORE!

Here are a couple of the hardy species, C. oleifera:
'Survivor': Single white, floriferous, upright
'Twilight Glow': Single rose; spreading
'Polar Ice': 3.5-inch, white, anemone-like flowers
'Carolina Moonmist': Pink; selected for dense branching

And for the sluttiest, deepest red:
C. japonica 'Midnight Lover'

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine

     

    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.