By Brenda Bolton, Mobile Master Gardener | CoastalAlabamaGardening@gmail.com
Q: I’m new to this area and miss my garden peonies, but I see the camellias in bloom here and want to know more about this beautiful flower.
A: Welcome to a year-round gardening city, where naming the best flower or bloom season is a challenge. Is it traditional springtime with its first blush of pastel rose petals, azaleas and asters, or June’s striped crinums and big blue hydrangeas, or the butterfly’s September celebration of vibrant sages?
But consider for a moment a quieter season, when the clamorous colors of summer have faded, along with the heat. When bare stems twist against the sky, the days have dimmed and into that cool, gray landscape emerges Mobile’s other bloom season. Some believe it is the best. Along woody stems and among shiny, deep-green evergreen foliage, the whites and pinks and reds of the camellia pop out.
The camellia has been such an anchor plant here for so long that many Mobilians think it’s native. This beautiful Asian immigrant has withstood the tests of time and climate, charming us with its achingly beautiful blooms for hundreds of years. From the annual winter Camellia Ball to its selection as Alabama State Flower, the camellia is integral to our culture and traditions.
Ornamental camellias are generally grouped into the small-leafed C. sasanqua, and the large-leafed C. japonica. C. japonica needs early morning or dappled sun while the faster-growing C. sasanqua takes full sun and a bit of afternoon shade. Established camellias enjoy drier conditions and a root zone cooled by good quality mulch, such as pine straw or shredded pine bark.
During the first year, water regularly (1 inch weekly if there is no rain, provided the soil drains well — a critical need). After that, water only during periods of drought. While they flourish in a humus-rich, well-drained and loose, slightly acidic soil, they can tolerate heavy, acid clay. Spring and fall feeding encourages a healthy plant with abundant blooms. Camellias can develop scale, whiteflies and fungal leaf spot, but these are seldom fatal. Treat with horticultural oils, as needed, precisely following package directions.
Allow camellias to achieve their natural growth habit, and prune only to remove diseased stems and to open up the plant for better airflow and light. Some C. sasanqua varieties produce tall, straggly stems that require clipping. Camellias do not have to be pruned to encourage flowering. In fact, if you prune at the wrong time of year, you will remove the next year’s buds. The best pruning time is just before the first flush of spring growth but after the last freeze.
The C. japonica is a beautiful cut flower. You can extend your enjoyment of the blooms by preserving them in a wax coating. Waxing blossoms is a craft dating to Victorian times. C. japonicas are particularly successful when waxed because of their petal strength and beautiful shapes and colorations. Waxed blooms will grace tables and mantels in your home for about a week if the bloom is properly waxed when very fresh.
Here are the basics, according to Dr. Brenda Litchfield, president of the Mobile Camellia Society:
“Mix 1 pound of paraffin wax with 1/2 cup of plain mineral oil. Heat to 138 degrees F., using a very accurate cooking thermometer. Slowly swirl (don’t dunk) the bloom into the wax until submerged. Quickly remove it from the hot wax. Shake off excess, and turn it facing up to let wax run to interior. Immediately swirl the bloom into a pan of iced water and leave for about 30 seconds. Remove to drain and dry, leaving a bloom that looks like porcelain!”
For her demonstration, search Brenda Litchfield on YouTube, “Waxing Camellias.” For further information on cultivating camellias and recommended cultivars, see publication ANR 0202 “The Culture of Camellias, the State Flower of Alabama,” available free at aces.edu.