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Camellias are beautiful, evergreen shrubs that thrive in shade (fewer flowers may be produced in very dark spots, however). Their most endearing trait, however? The fact that they bloom in the 'off season,' when gardens lack flowers. What homeowner could resist bright, beautiful blooms in the dead of winter? Camellias make great landscape additions, and planting a variety of different cultivars could provide a succession of blooms from November through April. Camellia colors range from white, through to pale blush pinks, bright pinks, and reds. There are both single flowered forms and doubles that resemble peonies.
Two species of camellias are commonly available; Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. Sasanquas range from 5 to 10 feet tall and flower from fall to winter, bearing blooms from September to December, depending on the cultivar. They are also the more sun tolerant of the two species, accepting up to three-quarters of a day of sun. They are also less hardy than Camellia japonica, so plant them in a protected spot -- low spots in the landscape, for example, tend to be frost pockets, as cold air sinks. A sustained cold snap could injure or kill a camellia here.
Camellia japonica can reach 12 feet at maturity and partial shade is an essential cultural requirement. Bloom time ranges from November through April. While buds are frost tolerant, open flowers are not -- a hard freeze will turn them to mush. Luckily, flowers open slowly over a long period, so once the weather warms again, more buds will open.
When buying camellias, check the nursery label for hardiness information. Know which plant zone you live in (nursery staff can tell you this). Some varieties of camellia are hardy as far north as Zone 6, others will survive only in Zones 7 or 8. Plant camellias in acid soil (a pH of six or under), mixing in plenty of organic matter. Mulch heavily to boost cold-hardiness. You’ll find camellias to be low-maintenance shrubs, never needing spraying. A light pruning can be done, if needed, right after flowering. (Camellias set buds in summer and pruning too late will cut off next year's flowers.) Limit pruning activities to shaping, however. These shrubs have a naturally beautiful form, and hard pruning decreases their beauty. Planting them where they have plenty of room to spread out -- five to eight feet -- will eliminate the need for pruning altogether.