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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 01, 2002

A kingdom of camellias A kingdom of camellias (February 01, 2002)

Rare varieties can grace your garden

by Jill Slater

"It's a whole new world when it comes to growing camellias," said Barbara Tuffli, president of the Peninsula Camellia Society. Turns out, camellias are not just the pink, red or white flowers they used to be.

Imagine camellias with luxurious fragrance, unusual silvery green and scalloped foliage, or plants blanketed with tiny blossoms. While it may seem hard to believe, you can grow rare camellias in your own back yard. They are no harder to cultivate than the more common varieties.

Amazingly, Silicon Valley is the envy of camellia lovers worldwide. "Our mild climate allows camellia enthusiasts the ability to easily grow almost all camellia species," Tuffli said. With 3,000 varieties to choose from, that's earth-shattering news.

Camellias are native to eastern and southern Asia. Most varieties prefer bright shady areas that have well-draining, slightly acidic soils, although some camellias can tolerate full sun.

The question remains as to which camellias to plant in your garden. The answer depends on what your plot has to offer. If your garden is filled with open shade, such as tall oak trees that filter sunlight or a good overhang offering afternoon shade, you can grow most varieties.

On the other hand, if the sun reigns in your garden, Camellia sasanqua will be your best bet. Most other varieties can't take the heat of full sun. These jewels bloom early compared to other camellia varieties, opening from autumn through early winter. According to the Sunset "Western Garden Book," C. sasanqua are drought tolerant, and some are even fragrant.

Nonetheless, Tuffli cautions not to plant C. sasanqua near reflective surfaces, such as against a white house with a black-top driveway. The plant may get sun burned, or leaves may appear yellow rather than deep green.

Tuffli maintains a garden of more than 475 camellias, including fragrant C. sasanqua. Her picks for fragrance are 'Hugh Evans,' a small pink single flower with dark green foliage, 'Apple Blossom,' a white-blushed single bloom, and 'Setsugekka,' which has nice dark green foliage and medium to large white semi-double blooms. Most fragrant camellias smell sweet, with some more intense than others.

Another fragrant camellia is that of the C. lutchuensis species. These require openly shady conditions, or morning sun. Covered with a profusion of tiny fingernail-sized white blossoms, it can grow up to 10 feet in height -- truly out-of-this-world gorgeous.

C. lutchuensis is often the parent plant for larger bloomed fragrant camellias. Two such hybrids, and Tuffli's favorites, are 'Scentuous' and 'High Fragrance.' 'Scentuous' sports small semi-double blooms that are white with pink flush shades on the back of the petals. 'High Fragrance' is a medium-sized peony-form flower. Its petals are pale ivory pink with deeper pink shading at the edges.

If "tea for two" is your mantra, grow C. sinensis. 'Teabreeze' is littered with especially fragrant white blooms. And yes, you really can make tea from its leaves.

Although not fragrant, just downright breathtaking, is C. nitidissima or more commonly called C. chrysantha. The blooms of this incredible plant bear spectacular 2.5-inch bright golden-yellow flowers. Camellia growers use it to expand the camellia color rainbow by hybridizing it with other varieties. Shade is a must for this exceptional species.

Probably the most common camellia in Silicon Valley gardens is Camellia japonica. It is most likely the plant you imagine when thinking of camellias. However, that does not make it any less desirable.

According to Sunset "Western Garden Book," older C. japonicas can get as tall as 20 feet, and equally as wide. This author brags of two C. japonica, 'Elegans,' 8-feet in height and width, growing side by side, under generous southern-facing eaves. The plants are about 62 years old and offer floriferous beefy pale pink flowers, blooming from January through most of February.

Within the C. japonica variety are Higo camellias. These are a bit different in that the petals of the flower are thick, single rowed with important flared stamens prominent in the center. The colors of Higo camellias include white, pink and red, solid and variegated, similar in color to regular C. japonica varieties.

Last but not least, and perhaps the most glorious camellia flowers are C. reticulata. "The blossoms," Tuffli said, as she got out her measuring tape, "are at least 8 inches across, or the size of a salad plate."

C. reticulatas grow into trees, and require bright open shade. Tuffli recommends 'Mandalay Queen,' which has dark rose pink, very large semi-double blooms with fluted petals. Soft pink, large semi-double blooms describe 'Hulyn Smith.' 'Crimson Robe' is a more sun tolerant variety. Its flowers are described as wavy, crinkled and crepe-like, with very large semi double petals. Again, all are living in Tuffli's gigantic garden.

Where can you buy these rare camellias? Try your favorite nursery first. Many will offer to order varieties for you, but you'll need to be clear on what you want.

You can also purchase rare camellias tomorrow at the Peninsula Camellia Society's plant auction. New and hard-to-find varieties for sun or shade will be on sale. Then on Feb. 16 and 17 there's a camellia flower show. Both events are free and take place at the Community Activities Building in Redwood City.

While attending either of these events you may want to join the Peninsula Camellia Society. A $10 annual fee entitles members to the guest lecturer series, not to mention the priceless support of fellow camellia lovers.
Jill Slater is the Good Gardener for ABC 7 News, San Francisco, and spokesperson for The California Cut Flower Commission.

Box at end: What: Peninsula Camellia Society's Camellia Plant Auction When: Saturday, Feb. 9, 1 p.m. until sold out Where: Community Activities Building, 1400 Roosevelt Ave, Redwood City Info: lists plants with photographs to be auctioned
What: 41st Annual Camellia Flower Show When: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2 p.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 17, noon-4 p.m. Where: Community Activities Building, 1400 Roosevelt Ave, Redwood City Info: Free to the public


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