It might surprise you to learn that there are several species of Camellia in season right now, blooming from late fall into winter and by the time these have finished flowering the spring varieties will already be showing some colour that will carry us through to April - which is quite an extended display of colour for any ornamental shrub. So, I thought I’d walk you through this important plant family and leave you with a few tips in regards to the best cultivars and growing practices.
Winter Camellia (Camellia sasanqua) - Even though they are often listed as Camellia sasanqua, many of these cultivars are of varied lineage that includes C. vernalis and C. hiemalis. These flower from late autumn into winter and many of them are quite fragrant. Most cultivars have a lax branching habit which lends itself to training onto a trellis or featured as a cascading container specimen. The notable exception here is ‘Yuletide’ with a tight, upright form that matures around 5’ tall and bears stunning single red blooms contrasted by golden stamens around Christmas. ‘Apple Blossom’ is another single form with white blooms edged in pink, while ‘Kanjiro’ (rose-pink), ‘White Doves’ (pure white) and ‘Chansonette’ (clear pink) have semi to fully double flowers.
Camellia sasanqua 'Apple Blossom', Camellia sasanqua 'Chansonette', Camellia sasanqua 'Kanjiro', Camellia sasanqua 'White Doves', Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide'
Tea Camellia (Camellia sinensis) – Some people are under the impression that Tea Camellia isn’t hardy here, but with ‘Tea Breeze’ rated at zone 6 and the rest of the cultivars zone 7, they grow rather well in coastal BC. While the Russian variety ‘Sochi Seedling’ is probably the most common find, both ‘Korean’ (from the mountainous Boseong region of Korea) and ‘Blushing Maiden’ (pale pink flowers) can be found locally and I have grown the former in a container for many years with little winter protection but an insulated sleeve during prolonged below-freezing weather. These bloom from October to December bearing small white or pale pink blossoms that are often hidden in the foliage. The new leaves are harvested to make both green or black (fermented) teas and I’ll leave you with step-by-step instructions for harvesting and producing homemade green tea below.
Camellia sinensis 'Blushing Maiden', Camellia sinensis 'Korean' new growth, Camellia sinensis 'Korean' new growth.
Japanese Camellias (Camellia japonica) – This species is probably the most common Camellia available but with the exception of moderately compact hybrids such as ‘Betty Ridley’ (pink double), most mature at heights of 10-12’ tall, making them useful for screening nosy neighbors or anchoring the corner of the fence line. The flower form ranges from single (‘White Mermaid’) to semi-double (‘Jordan’s Pride’), but oddities such as fringed (‘Fred Sander’) and variegated (‘Otome Variegated’) can also be found. Two-tone flowers (‘Nuccio’s Jewel’, ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’) are popular, as are the large doubles such as ‘Kumasaka’ (pink) and ‘Tom Knudsen’ (red). Japanese Camellias grown outdoors tend to be in full bloom around April but those purchased at the garden center will be in flower much earlier.
Camellia japonica 'Fred Sander', Camellia japonica 'Jordan's Pride', Camellia japonica 'Kumasaka', Camellia japonica 'Nuccio's Jewel', Camellia japonica 'Nuccio's Pearl', Camellia japonica 'Otome Variegated', Camellia japonica 'Tom Knudsen', Camellia japonica 'White Mermaid', Camellia x 'Betty Ridley'
Hybrid Camellias (Camellia x williamsii) – A rather eclectic group of hybrids, many of which were originally bred by crossing Camellia japonica and C. saluenensis. This diversity is reflected in both the growth habit and flower form with some cultivars such as ‘Brigadoon’, ‘Donation’ and ‘Taylor’s Perfection’ bearing single to semi-double pink blooms with a lax growth habit. Two notable exceptions here are ‘Debbie’ (fuchsia-pink) and ‘Jury’s Yellow’ (pale yellow) which both have substantial peony-form flowers on shrubs with an upright growth habit. The semi-double ‘Freedom Bell’ (coral red) is an AGM winner and a very reliable performer. Depending on the cultivar, you can expect some bud colour as early as November, with flowers lasting until April.
Camellia x williamsii 'Debbie', Camellia x williamsii 'Freedom Bell', Camellia x williamsii 'Freedom Bell'
Care of Camellias – As a general rule all Camellias are zone 7 hardy (with some varieties being one zone hardier) and as broadleaf evergreens, they prefer sites out of strong winter winds or intense summer sun. They are ericaceous plants needing evenly moist acidic soils that drain freely and they should be fertilized (using a Rhododendron fertilizer) and pruned immediately after flowering, with container-grown specimens fed with a slow-release 14-14-14 in April. Camellias are shallow rooted so you will need to augment watering during those summer dry spells or you’ll end up with very few flower buds and leaf scorch. Choose a partial shade planting site with morning or late afternoon sun, filtered light like that found in an open forest exposure would also be suitable. Pests are infrequent with the exception of scale, a sucking insect which can often be found on the leaf reverse but with accumulations of sooty mould on the topside being the most common symptom. Heavily infested branches should be pruned out, with the shrub sprayed (focussing on the leaf reverse) with dormant (before new foliage emerges) or summer oils (used later in the season) as smothering agents.
Step-By-Step Homemade Green Tea
1. Harvesting – Harvest the topmost Camellia sinensis leaves when a new flush occurs; in spring, early summer and early autumn - but keep in mind that the first pick is always the most flavourful.
2. Natural Drying – Spread your tea leaves in a single layer over an absorbent mat and allow them to wilt naturally for 2-3 hours in a shaded location.
3. Shaqing – This brief heat treatment halts oxidization, removing the grassy smell and enriching the flavour. This is done by dry roasting in an open skillet or wok over low heat for several minutes, being careful to stir constantly to prevent crisping. The idea is to further reduce moisture content by 30-40% to facilitate hand rolling.
4. Hand Rolling – Using the palms of your hands, roll the heat-treated leaves when they are either hot or cold, although the latter preserves the green colour. This breaks down the leaf structure making them better for brewing. Once rolled, preserve by drying in the oven for 20 minutes at 250F, cooling and storing in an airtight container.
5. Brewing – Your freshly processed green tea will not be as strong as store-bought but they can be steeped in much the same manner. I would sample it from time to time while steeping, as the flavours are rather complex and you don’t want to miss that ‘perfect’ cup of tea.