Did you know that camellias are actually part of the tea family? If you live in the south like I do, you’re probably very familiar with camellias because they’re practically everywhere. They typically bloom during the winter months, which is why they’re often referred to as the rose of winter or the queen of winter flowers.
They come in a variety of colors including red, pink, white, and a mix of these colors. In addition to their beautiful flowers, camellias are also known for their culinary uses. The shrubs or small trees are part of the tea family and their leaves are often used to make tea.
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There are thousands of varieties of Camellias.
Native to Asia, there are more than 200 species of camellias and thousands of varieties. The most-popular types of camellias in America are japonicas, sasanquas, and reticulatas, says William Khoury, superintendent of gardens for the American Camellia Society and Massee Lane Gardens in Georgia. Some people create large collections of different types of camellias, favoring the big blooms to exhibit at flower shows.
They bloom in three seasons.
By choosing varieties with staggered bloom times, your camellia flower display can last for months between autumn and spring. For fall color, Khoury recommends growing sasanquas, which he describes as “sun-loving plants with small leaves and blooms.” Some japonica cultivars will bloom from fall into spring, too. Khoury notes that reticulatas “have the largest blooms, tend to bloom in late winter and spring, and can be more sensitive to cold.”
A summer-blooming camellia exists.
Khoury says there are new camellia hybrids that will bloom in the summer currently in development by breeders. One of these cultivars, “Wendzalea,” is already available in the U.S. Its ruby-red, semi-double blooms open from July to November, and again from February through March. To create cultivars that bloom in summer or re-bloom, camellias must be bred with a wild species from China, C. azalea (which is not a true azalea, as Khoury points out). New cultivars are also being developed in trendy colors like yellow and purple.
Some varieties can grow in colder regions.
These evergreen shrubs and small trees aren’t especially cold-hardy, so camellias have been limited mostly to USDA Zones 7-10. Breeders have created hardier varieties, though, and now there are several that can grow in Zone 6. One of the hardiest, Camellia japonica ‘Korean Fire’ may even survive with winter protection in Zone 5.
Jenny Rydebrink, founder and CEO of Gardenize, a mobile app for gardeners, offers some advice for those whose climates are too cold to grow camellias outdoors. Rydebrink says that growing camellias in pots is a good option, and offers the following tips:
- Keep camellias in cool but not freezing temperatures
- Give them as much light as possible
- Water them enough so the roots don’t completely dry out
- In spring, when temperatures stay above freezing, move the pots back outside
- Just don’t move the pots around too much, Rydebrink warns, because this can cause flowers and buds to fall off.
Camellias are part of American history.
According to the American Camellia Society, the most popular camellia isn’t usually grown in home gardens. It’s Camellia sinensis; the species used to make tea. This commodity, you may remember, happened to be what got thrown overboard during the Boston Tea Party in protest of taxation without representation. This event was the first to rally colonists together to fight for independence from Great Britain, so you could say that camellias played an important role in starting the American Revolution.
Coco Chanel loved the flowers.
The camellia flower is said to have been a favorite of famed fashion designer Coco Chanel. Images of the elegant blooms showed up in her jewelry, handbags, clothes, and other products. She’s also reported to have liked them because they weren’t fragrant, so they didn’t compete with her signature perfume, Chanel No. 5.