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Hardy Camellias

When summer heat kicks in, it’s hard to think ahead to fall and winter in the garden. But just imagine a plant other than a chrysanthemum that starts to bloom in the fall! The first plant that comes to my mind is the hardy camellia.

I know what you’re thinking—camellias don’t grow in Kentucky, they grow in the Carolinas and Georgia. True, the most common type of camellia, Camellia japonica, or Japanese camellia, does not grow here because they are not hardy this far north.

There are a few varieties that are proven to be hardy in Kentucky, and while the plants may not be as traditional and shapely as the Japanese camellia, the flowers are just as spectacular. Camellias start showing up in your local garden center in summer, and can be planted now for fall and early winter blooming.

Planting site
All camellias, regardless of hardiness, prefer an environment similar to that of azalea and rhododendron. They prefer a moist, but well-drained, acidic soil with adequate organic matter, and a site that is partly shady. Too much shade and the flowering is dramatically reduced, too much sun and the plant’s vigor is dramatically reduced. Selecting the proper site is very important for the health and success of camellias.

Blooming for a long period of 5 to 6 weeks, from late October into early December, this prompts me to recommend a specific planting site. Consider an area near a walkway you frequently use, in a garden near a doorway, or in an area visible from a predominant window in your home. This way you can enjoy the blooms even if it is too cold to venture outside into the garden.

Flowering & leaves
Most of the hardy varieties have flowers that are white, pink, or somewhere in between, and both single- and double-flowered varieties are available for our area. With a list of 10 or more varieties proven to be hardy to temperatures of –10 degrees F, I have found only a handful to be readily available: Winter’s Charm with double bluish-pink flowers, Winter’s Star with single reddish flowers, Winter’s Beauty with its double or peony-like pink flowers, and Snow Flurry with its double white flowers. Hopefully more varieties will become available as the popularity of the hardy camellias develops.

Hardy camellias are evergreen with dark-green, glossy, simple leaves, and grow on average 5 to 6 feet tall and equally wide in our area. This is small in comparison to most Southern varieties, but I will take what I can get. They also have a more loose habit, making them a naturally growing addition to the garden.

Camellia choices
I have planted Winter’s Charm in a small secluded, formal area in the back of my garden. It is a partly sunny, protected site and I often work in and stroll around my garden throughout November and December. Sometimes I even talk myself into cutting a blossom or two and bring them into the house to enjoy.

Some other hardy camellia choices include Snow Flurry, Pink Icicle, and Winter’s Star.

Consider your garden an active part of your life year-round. Select plants for your garden so that when the weather is hot and humid or cold and dreary, the garden is always beautiful.

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