Camellia fever big in Natchez

Published 12:01 am Sunday, February 21, 2016

Camellias are the quintessential Southern landscape shrub. They grow in abundance throughout this region. Many are among the foundation plantings of antebellum mansions including Montaigne, Melrose, Routhland, The Towers and Green Leaves.

These evergreen shrubs are popular because they take little care once established, and produce showy flowers in shades of white, pinks, reds, striped or variegated colors that bloom from late fall through March or April, depending on variety and location. These lovely flowers can be enjoyed on the plants when little else is blooming or enjoyed indoors in arrangements or floating in water in decorative bowls.

Native to China, Japan and other parts of Asia, the camellia was introduced into western civilization approximately three centuries ago when plants of Camellia japonica were substituted for Camellia sinensis (the species that gives us the beverage tea) in a shipment headed for England.

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The boldly flowering plants, dubbed “tree of shining leaves” created a huge sensation when observers were treated to their spectacular flower displays. Camellias were all the rage and found their way into greenhouses of the wealthy.

Imported to America approximately two centuries ago, they quickly spread, especially in the Deep South where they could be grown outdoors.

Gardening enthusiasts clamored for more and found another species, Camellia sasanqua, which blooms in fall, thereby extending the flowering season. Southerners refer to these spreading, floriferous shrubs as sasanquas and Japanese varieties as camellias, but in actuality, both are camellias.

Camellia fever burned brightly in the Natchez area, especially in the early and mid-20th century when some of the local male camellia enthusiasts formed the Natchez Men’s Camellia Club. Members included David Blough, Charles Ratcliffe (Routhland), William Kendell (Montaigne) and Melchior R. Beltzhoover (Green Leaves).

They vied with one another to hybridize new and better camellia varieties and in the process created impressive camellia collections, many of which remain in their descendants’ landscapes today. Old favorites include Alba Plena, Sarah Frost, Chandelier Elegance, Purple Dawn and White Empress. Mid-20th century varieties in gardens throughout Natchez include Debutante and Pink Perfection.

Like most gardeners, camellia fanciers are keen to share their knowledge and plants.

Rosecraft Garden Club member Candace Bundgard and her husband Peter, are nurturing young camellia plants that Peter grafted from stately camellia plants growing at Montaigne. They currently have 60 in their Belle Rose landscape, and are in the process of adding more. Peter uses the air layering propagation technique that speeds up the growing process by several years.

There are several thousand varieties and species of camellias growing around the world. Hybridizer are hard at work to create new and better versions of these heirloom plants. Significant breakthroughs include adding fragrance as well as the color yellow.

If you’re like most people, your first reaction on seeing a flower is to sniff it in anticipation of an enjoyable fragrance. Many flowers oblige the sense of smell. But until recently, camellias have not been among them. But that’s changing as camellia hybridizers around the world are developing fragrant camellias for an eager marketplace.

“There are species camellias that are quite fragrant, but because their flowers are so small, they aren’t popular with the home gardener,” explained Tom Nuccio, one of the famous Nuccio family who own and operate Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altaden a, California.

A family-owned nursery for more than 80 years, Nuccio’s enjoys a worldwide reputation for hybridizing and growing exceptional camellias and azaleas. They grow and sell approximately 250,000 plants each year. But among the 600 camellia varieties which Nuccio’s offers, only 10 are fragrant.

Tom Nuccio expects that number to double in the next few years as more hybridizers try to combine dramatic, colorful flower forms with hauntingly sweet fragrances. They can do this because a species of camellia, C. lutchuensis, has a very pronounced, sweet fragrance resembling jasmine. But the shrub has very small white flowers, and the overall growth habit is large and sprawling. So camellia experts are trying their best to combine the lutchuensis scent with attractive flowers. Some of the results are flowers with a jasmine-like fragrance with lemon overtones. The result is very pleasing to the nose as well as the eye. These new varieties include pale-pink Scentuous, High Fragrance and Scented Pink.

The elusive color yellow is being captured thanks to Japanese hybridizers who have created almost a dozen different light yellow hybrids, including Shoko, Kicho and Kiho. You can find more information about them at www.nuccios

If you want to add a camellia in your landscape, choose a site that gets morning or filtered sun. Dig a hole at least two times wider than the diameter of the container. Make a small ledge at the bottom of the hole. Carefully remove plant from container, position it on the ledge and then gently fill with soil. The plant should be two inches above the soil surface so it is level with the soil surface when it settles. You can even place it slightly higher than soil surface and mulch around the plant. Be sure to keep mulch away from the trunk. Camellias can die from too much water because their roots don’t drain adequately. This soil position helps prevent that.

Fertilize only when plant is growing, not when blooming. When flowering, the plant is actually in a dormant condition and fertilizing can cause flowers to drop off. Wait for the flush of new leaves, a term called “feathering.” Apply cottonseed meal or camellia fertilizer around base of plant, according to package directions. Be sure to water well.

Although camellias are very drought tolerant, they do need supplemental watering during our dry spells for the first year. Compact types grow very well in containers and will need regular watering when potting soil becomes dry. The general guideline is that camellia plants should be moist, but not wet.


Karen Dardick is an gardener, writer and member of Rosecraft Garden club.