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Queen of the Southern Garden

Camellias originated in China and Japan. They are in the tea family, something familiar to Southerners who enjoy tea and drink gallons of it, sweet or unsweetened.

Story by Laura Lee Rose

Camellias have always fascinated me. They are blooming when other flowering shrubs are asleep or just waking up. We see them in parks and at homes and gardens across the South.

There are International and American Camellia societies with local and regional chapters. The beautiful flowers of Camellia japonica usually are not fragrant, but they used to be very popular as corsages. It’s probably been 45 years since I wore a corsage, but while reading my 1968 World Book encyclopedia, I noticed there was a picture of a gorgeous bloom as a corsage. I have lived in the South all my life, except for two years at college in northern Virginia. I just assumed Camellias are native to South Carolina.

Camellias originated in China and Japan. They are in the tea family, something familiar to Southerners who enjoy tea and drink gallons of it, sweet or unsweetened. In the last 20 to 40 years, people began to appreciate other teas. Green tea and herbal teas have become popular drinks for health and happiness. Green tea is the unfermented version of Camellia senensis leaves and is associated with benefits for our heart, energy and beauty.

We do have two members of the tea family. Theaceae which is native to southeastern North America grows in Beaufort County and Stewartia malacodendron, whose common name is Silky Camellia, Gordonia lisianthus or Loblolly Bay.

Camellia japonica was first brought to South Carolina by the wealthy Middleton and Drayton families to adorn their formal gardens. Before I studied and appreciated the horticultural importance of these old shrubs, I was impressed with the age, size and beauty of the ones at Middleton Place outside Charleston. The arboretum at Armstrong State University in Savannah is another nearby site with an impressive collection of various species of Camellia. There are many unusual types of shrubs on the large campus, and while they have numerous mature C. japonicus, these also are lovely and uncommon species of Camellia.

The Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm at the University of Georgia also has a large Camellia collection. Locally, the Coastal Discovery museum at Honey Horn has a remarkable collection, cared for by the volunteers. Because Camellias begin to bloom in fall and continue until April, February is actually a great time to visit these public gardens.

What do gardeners need to know about the cultural requirements of Camellia? They were originally found growing on the side of mountains in China, according to one source. They need plenty of room to spread and can reach 15- to 25-feet tall with spreads of 6- to 10-feet. Avoid planting them too close to the house or to each other. Camellia make good focal points, but not good foundation plants. They enjoy organic matter (leaf mold) and perfect drainage.

Most grow well in a temperate climate, not in full sun, but need sufficient light and good air flow. Leaf size is directly related to the amount of sunlight a Camellia will tolerate. The smaller leaves on C. sasanqua enjoy full sun. Large leathery C. japonica leaves will not put up with late afternoon sun. The leaves of the tea plant, C. senensis, are relatively small. They can be grown as an evergreen blooming hedge or as accent plants. They are grown commercially on tea plantations in full sun.

Good cultural practices will help to insure the health and beauty of landscape plants. It is important to know the requirements of plant families or species. A healthy plant is less likely to suffer disease and insect pressure than one which is stressed. Early detection and rapid response to problems always is preferable. Visit your Camellias often, look on the undersides of the leaves, keep them moist but not wet. Give compost and leaf mold generously, pick up and destroy spent blooms, and wear the blooms as corsages or pinned to your favorite hat. This is Camellia season in the South!

3 Planting Tips

Tip 1: Camellias need to be planted high. To help water drain away from the trunk, try to plant the top of the root ball level with the surface of the soil.

Tip 2: Camellia roots are shallow, so avoid planting them under shallow-rooted shade trees. They grow well in the shade of deep-rooted trees such as pine and oak.

Tip 3: Smaller varieties can be grown in containers. Use a potting mix designed for container pots for best results.


Laura Lee Rose is a Clemson Extension horticulture agent. The extension offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or family status and is an equal opportunity employer.