Thursday, January 31, 2013

Camellias in Bloom

My late grandmother Chessie Pearce's camellia
Camden County, North Carolina
Photographed by Edward L. Pearce

This past Saturday the Coastal Carolina Camellia Society held its annual camellia show. According to the Society's FaceBook page, more than 1,000 blooms were entered. I intended to go across town to view the entries, but got busy and forgot until too late. What a great opportunity it would have been to learn more about camellias.

My grandmother, Chessie Pearce, grew a camellia tree in her garden. The tree is at least sixty-five years old but possibly much older. My brother Edward remembers our grandmother saying camellias should be planted on the north side of a pine and also remembers her calling her tree a japonica. Sometime during the 1970s temperatures dropped below zero and the freeze damaged Grandmama's tree. After Edward cut it back to about five feet, it revived. Now, forty-five years after our grandmother's death, the tree is approximately eighteen feet tall and blooms prolifically. 

Camellia tree
Chessie Pearce's camellia tree is more than 65 years old
Photographed by Edward L. Pearce

My knowledge of camellias is not extensive. I'm familiar with japonicas and sasanquas, and with camellia sinensis, the tea plant. These are not, however, the only species of camellias and after doing a bit of reading, I realize it's quite possible that some of the camellias I believed to be japonicas are not.

Here's the local conventional wisdom: Japonica blossoms make beautiful cut flowers, perfect for floating in a glass bowl indoors or in a birdbath outdoors. Sasanqua blossoms don't last when cut. 

Where I live, the sasanquas usually bloom from September to November and japonicas bloom in the winter. 

Variegated camellia japonica
This red and white variegated variety 
grows in my front yard

Camellia japonica
This cream colored camellia sporting 
a wealth of stamens grows near my front door
Variegated camellias
A pink and white variegated variety
 growing in my front yard

My one-third acre lot contains a number of camellias. Some, or all, of the seven that came with the house, when I bought it, had been transplanted here from Summerville when the prior homeowner moved his parents into assisted living. One of the seven budded yearly, but never bloomed, and succumbed during a cold winter several years ago. A single one of the remaining six is a sasanqua, which I've had cut back, but has resumed growth. I always assumed the other five were  of the japonica species, but after perusing the American Camellia Society's website this afternoon, I'm not so certain.

White camellia japonica
This white camellia japonica is one I bought, from a plant nursery or garden center, and planted perhaps as much as ten or twelve years ago. It's at the back of the lot and gets little sunlight. Perhaps that's why it's stingy with its gorgeous blossoms. 

My older japonicas produce seeds. In the last three years volunteers have sprouted under an old pink-blossomed tree. With varying success, I've transplanted seedlings to other spots in my yard. I've also given a few away.

When I intentionally planted camellia seeds in the past, either they didn't grow, or I forgot where I planted them and accidentally mowed them down. The seedlings are similar in appearance to those of the homely wild cherry trees that, due to bird droppings, each year produce hundreds of seedlings under my huge live oak and a variety of other shrubs and trees. 

My sister Martha Ann in northeastern North Carolina had success growing a camellia from a seed I gave her years ago. One of her animals, a goat, attempted to eat the small shrub, but now it's growing back.

Camellia seeds and seedpods
This past August I harvested seeds from the five older japonicas
I have not yet taken on the task of identifying the varieties of my camellias. Nor have I been a particularly good steward of them in the past. I hope to remedy that.

Formal double camellia in South Carolina
On the grounds of the Berkeley County
Library, Daniel Island, SC
Formal double camellia growing in Japan
On the Rokko Island greenway, Kobe, Japan

As a result of having family members living in Japan, I have been able to view camellias in bloom at Tenryū-ji and other gardens in Kyoto, as well as, in and around Kobe. 

Camellia tree Kobe, Japan
One of a group of camellia trees growing out of rock
 on a hillside above Kobe, Japan in late November

There are plenty of opportunities to see camellias blooming in the American South. At this time of year a stroll through older neighborhoods, such as the one where I live, is a treat for a camellia lover. 

Two weeks from today, Middleton Place begins its annual guided Camellia Walks. Botanist Andre Michaux is said to have introduced the camellia japonica there around 1785. 

Camellia tree
This japonica by my laundry room thrives on afternoon sunlight but needs some TLC

Camellia seed pods and pear in situ
Seed pods in situ
Transplanted camellia seedling
A volunteer that I transplanted

Camellia tree at Tenryu-ji in Kyoto, Japan
April at Tenryū-ji temple gardens in Kyoto, Japan
Camellia blossom in Kyoto, Japan
A leaf wants to hide this pretty pink blossom at Tenryū-ji

Variegated camellia at Tenryu-ji in Kyoto, Japan
A variegated blossom at Tenryū-ji 

Camellia blossom

This one grows by my laundry room

Thank you for visiting The Traveling Gardener. 
Your comments are welcome.


  1. I am not an expert and was just a child when my father was planting camellias in our yard but I do remember the names of a couple of my favorites.

    The first one is a "double sargent" I believe. It was killed by a warm spell in January, which was followed by one of those super cold snaps we get here in NC. The shrub was at least 8ft high and in front of a south-facing brick wall. The sap froze and split the trunk... and it was damaged to below the graft. *sigh*

    There is a pale pink camellia in the middle of your post (Berkeley County Library, Daniel Island, SC) that looks almost too perfect to be true... the flower is about palm-size or smaller and it's called "Pink Perfection"... alas, this one also went the way of the double sargent.

    I'm trying to locate the camellias I remember. Fortunately I do know a few names and do have very clear pictures in my mind of some of the others. I hope to find them....

    1. Thank you for the identifications, Impera Magna. I searched the web using "double sergent" and located "Professor Sargent," which is either the same or very nearly identical to my grandmother's camellia japonica. "Pink Perfection" appears to be spot on. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Good luck with your search!