The joy of winter camellias

Evergreen flowering shrubs known as winter camellias that provide a consistent flower display from late September through to January

Evergreen flowers can brighten dark winter.

Evergreen flowers can brighten dark winter.

Let’s face it, November can be a pretty sombre month for gardening and the best we can hope for in terms of colour are usually some soggy pansies or an occasional flowering kale.

But there is one group of evergreen flowering shrubs known generically as winter camellias that provide a consistent flower display from late September through to January.

These are often classified as camellia sasanqua, although many of them are complex hybrids known as Camellia x hiemalis or x vernalis, just keep in mind that many plant tags do not make this distinction.

That said, the shrubs themselves are more cold tolerant than the spring-blooming camellias, so any concerns about hardiness are unwarranted. The flower form ranges from single, semi-double, anemone (Choji-guruma) and formal doubles, with bloom colours varying from white, shell pink, deep rose and even a few true reds.

Many Winter camellias are also quite fragrant, making them ideal for those front door planters.

Where they do differ from the more common camellia japonica is with their lax branch habit (the upright ‘Yuletide’, being the exception), so you are either going to have to tip prune them to get an upright form or better yet, consider training them as espalier specimens on trellis or fences. This way you get a flower display across the contour and since the blooms don’t open up all at once, you actually get to enjoy them for a few weeks.

Winter camellias also work well in containers, either as temporary seasonal displays or as a permanent feature with a small support trellis.

So I guess my question to you is: why aren’t more gardeners taking advantage of this off-season flowering wonder?

While you’re pondering that, here’s a short list of some of the better cultivars that should be available locally:

• Apple blossom (C. sasanqua) – large fragrant single blooms of a delicate white-edged in pink give it both the apple blossom namesake and its overall appeal. Flowers for weeks on end, starting in late autumn.

• Chansonette (C. x hiemalis) – brilliant lavender-pink formal double flowers put on a long-lasting display against glossy green foliage. Blooms October to early December.

• Kanjiro (C. x hiemalis) –the semi-double deep rose-pink flowers are nicely contrasted by golden stamens. Blooms late fall to early winter.

• Showa-no-sakae (C. x hiemalis) – an old hybrid with a name that translates as ‘glory of the new era’ with ruffled bright pink flowers with yellow stamens peeking through. Starts blooming in October.

• Yuletide (C. x vernalis) – the smaller single blooms of this cultivar are quite abundant and they really stand out as the red petals are slightly separated and nicely contrasted by golden stamens. Always in flower around Christmas.

• White doves (C. sasanqua) –with a Japanese name of ‘Mine-no-Yuki’ (or ‘snow on the mountain’), it’s not surprising that the fragrant semi-double blooms are an elegant creamy-white. Flowers mid-autumn to early winter.

• Jean May (C. sasanqua) – an Award of Garden Merit winner with very fragrant shell pink double blooms. Flowers from late autumn into winter.

• Shishi-Gashira (C. x hiemalis) –abundant bright pink semi-double flowers are nicely contrasted by golden stamens and glossy, deep green foliage. Blooms 6 to 8 weeks starting in October.

• Bonanza (C. x hiemalis) – the rose-red peony-form double blooms are fragrant and show well on those dull winter days. Flowers late autumn into winter.

• You can find more camellias at my plant selection website, www.mikesgardentop5plants.wordpress.com.

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (hebe_acer@hotmail.com).

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