Camellias for Texas Gardens

By Dr. William C. Welch
Professor and Landscape Horticulturist
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

Like so many of the South’s cherished ornamental plants, camellias originated in China and came to North America via Europe. The genus Camellia includes many species, but of these, three are of special importance and interest as Southern plants: Camellia sinensis, Camellia japonica, and Camellia sasanqua.

Tea Plant (Camellia sinensis)

Of these three, the one that evoked the most intense interest in the early days of the Southern colonies was Camellia sinensis, a shrub that, truth be told, is of no special ornamental value. It is a reasonably attractive evergreen plant that bears single, cream-colored flowers. The blossoms were of no concern to colonial planters. What they were interested in was the plant’s foliage, which when dried and processed may be brewed into the popular beverage, tea. This was an ancient taste in China and Japan, and the cultivation of the tea plant had been carried on in those landscapes since ancient times. Tea-drinking became the fashion in England in the late sixteenth century or early in the seventeenth century, but because the leaves had to be shipped in from China, for a long time tea remained an expensive luxury.

Because of the interest in tea consumption the British took an early interest in establishing domestic tea production in the American South. The famous Trust Garden in Savannah was the first to receive seeds of tea. This occurred in 1744. Those first seeds did not grow but plants were sent in 1772 to Georgia and recorded as growing on Skidaway Island near Savannah before 1805. By 1813 a serious effort to grow tea was underway at Charleston, South Carolina. That planting did not flourish there either nor did they prosper in Texas-there is a record by the Cat Springs Agricultural Society of unsuccessful attempts at tea culture by early German settlers. Cat Springs is located near Bellville, Texas.

A successful commercial planting of tea was finally established by the Lipton Tea Company near Charleston where it is still in production although under a private label and no longer owned by Liptons. Like all camellias, Camellia sinensis requires an acid, well-drained, moist soil.

The tea bush has a more beautiful relative, one which did take root in the American South, and that is Camellia japonica. This species is best known to Southern gardeners for its handsome foliage and elegant winter and early spring flowers. A native of Korea, China, and Japan, this camellia has flower colors that range from white to turkey red, with many variegated forms. Although well-adapted to much of the south, C. japonica has a reputation for being difficult to grow when exposed to less than its ideal conditions. It is, however, by far the most important species of the three in relation to our Southern gardening heritage, and specimens of Camellia japonica mark the site of many important plantations and old homesteads throughout the South. C. japonica’s less popular rival in the Southern garden is Camellia sasanqua, a shrub of Japanese origin. Individual blossoms of Sasanqua camellias, though beautiful, are much less spectacular than those of C. japonica. Nevertheless, sasanquas fill an important garden niche because it is fall blooming-C. Japonica cultivars (known as "japonicas" in the South) bloom in late winter or early spring.

Practically speaking, camellias are best grown in the eastern third of Texas. The combination of acid soil, rainfall and temperatures are much more conducive to success with all three of the species mentioned in East Texas. Even there, camellias are likely to require considerable attention to watering, mulching and soil amendment than some gardeners are willing to provide. Sasanquas are considered to be somewhat easier to grow than japonicas and are often used as hedges as well as specimen plants and as background shrubs in borders.

Camellia in a container growing in College Station

Another possibility for growing camellias is to place them in large containers. Growing camellias in my College Station soil and water is not very practical, but I have a fairly large specimen growing in a 22-inch clay pot that is thriving on an open porch where it receives morning sun and afternoon shade. I also provide water from a cistern containing rainfall runoff from the roof. Our local water has too much sodium for continued success with camellias or many other ornamental plants. The soil mix I have used is about 1/2 sphagnum peat moss, 1/4 sharp builder’s sand, and 1/4 compost.

Camellias have been important to southern gardeners from the mid-1800s to present. Unlike old garden roses, that may be rooted fairly easily from cuttings and were grown in nearly every southern garden, camellias have always been favorites in upscale gardens where the relatively high cost of the plants and difficulty in propagating them were not as significant. Although japonica camellias sometimes set seeds that can be germinated, most are reproduced from cuttings or grafted onto sasanqua rootstocks.

Among the first camellias brought to America was ‘Alba Plena’, a beautiful, formal pure white, which is still popular today. Other Southern favorites include ‘Purple Dawn’, ‘Pink Perfection’, ‘Rose Dawn’, ‘Professor Sargent’ and ‘Debutante’. With careful selection it is possible to have camellias blooming from November through April. The plants grow relatively slowly, but begin flowering at a young age. At peak bloom times the bushes can be quite colorful. Individual flowers are often picked and floated in bowls.

This article appeared in Horticulture Update - January-February 2005, edited by Dr. William C. Welch, and produced by Extension Horticulture, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas.

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