Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why I love camellias (and hellebores, and...)

The last two weeks have been all about camellias, and we were lucky enough to have an unusually dry March so I've been able to be out there enjoying them. There are some camellia varieties on which nearly every flower is identical to its mates, and others where every flower is like an original painting, and different from every other flower on the plant. The April Dawn, above, is quite unstable genetically and can have pink, white, and pink-and-white flower colors on it all at the same time. In fact I got into an argument with the nurseryman at Kordell's, telling him he had a bunch of mis-labeled plants, until he showed me a 5' specimen that had all three colors on it. The one I brought home has only these white-edged blooms, so I wonder what it'll do next year. This is the only cammie I have where the petals line up in front of each other, instead of overlapping to form a spiral.

There are peony-like camellias, anemone-like ones, singles, semi-doubles, rose-form doubles, and formal doubles that are masterpieces of geometric sculpture. Even just among the japonicas, there's a range of bloom times, so with a collection of six or more, you can have six or eight weeks of bloom. My earliest one, a Chandleri, opened ten days ago and is starting to wind down, but half of the others haven't even cracked a bud yet. I've been in love with camellias since I saw my first ones while in high school, but didn't have any of my own until nine years ago in SoCal, when I started hanging out in the camellia garden at Huntington Garden in Pasadena. One time I visited Nuccio's nursery, a long-time top breeder and supplier, and I would swear they had an acre of nothing but camellia plants. I was fortunate moving here, to end up with a site that seems tailor made for camellias. I think I've planted close to a dozen now, and I just ordered three new bi-color youngsters from another breeder, in North Carolina, Camellia Forest. Cammies thrive as an understory plant in my fir forest, put up with just a few hours of sun, don't have any obvious problems with the heavy clay soil, and the only pest they have here is the occasional root weevil, which stops being a problem once the plants get established. The blooms can be damaged by late frost, and some years I lose blooms, but it's not a problem for the plants. I haven't had to fertilize them at all, except with compost, but I do mulch them with leaves along with everyone else, and make sure they get a bit of summer water. I'm careful to plant mine where early morning sun can't hit them during their bloom season, because sunlight on dewy petals can make brown spots. Thanks to my little fir forest, more than half my yard is perfect camellia habitat. You can prune them as much or as little as you want as long as you do it right after they bloom (or you'll lose next year's flowers), they have gorgeous thick, glossy green leaves, and they're substantial enough to use as part of your garden structure. All that is why I love camellias. And these are just the japonicas; don't forget there are sasanquas for sunnier places, and reticulatas for warmer areas.

The only ones I've lost have been ones that I bought early in the winter, and then had sitting on my back patio until the soil warmed up in the spring. They all seemed to die of frost damage to their trunks, and it occurred to me last fall that it might be happening from alternate freezing and thawing of the cambium because on sunny winter days they would get sun directly on them. So when I bought a contorted camellia japonica in december, I sank the pot into a composting pile of fir needles, in a shady spot where the sun couldn't get to it. It did lose most of its flower buds to frost, but I planted it last week and so far it looks pretty good.

I've heard many people complain about the fallen flowers making big piles under the plants, or about older flowers turning brown before they fall off, and I honestly don't see what the problem is. Maybe they just don't like anything with as many flowers as camellias have. (If you're a compulsive dead-header, a flock of full-grown camellias could be the end of you.) I can't really think of too many flowers that don't start looking bad as they die, and that doesn't keep most people from enjoying them. A carpet of pink or red or white flowers on the ground is almost as pretty as the same flowers before they fall off, and a bush surrounded by fallen blooms looks as if it's standing in a reflecting pool. As the fallen ones turn to brown—they become instant mulch. What's not to like about that?

My early bloomers have been having their best show ever this year. This is the most vigorous grower I have, an unnamed seedling with white-splashed petals, and every flower is unique. I'm going to try ground-layering this one this year, because I don't ever want to be without this camellia, no matter what else happens in my life.

This beauty is called Dainty California. It's not quite as vigorous as the splashed one, but for its size it's become a really prolific bloomer this year.

I noticed this year that after each flower has been open for a couple days, the white background turns to a pale pink, and the petals are so delicate and translucent, they look and feel like fairy wings.

I feel a bit guilty because I haven't been keeping up with my garden blogs when we're two weeks into spring and I've been enjoying my garden so much already. Last month it was all about hellebores bringing my garden to life. Last year I added several new ones in varying shades of pink and green. I also divided the seedling clump from the original one that's been here longer than I have, and spread those two dozen seedlings all over my back yard. Half a dozen of them bloomed this year, all lighter versions of their dark maroon parent. For the first time in my front yard, I finally had the beginnings of a late-winter flower garden outside my front window. The hellebore pair above, from the Heritage strain, were one of the highlights of it.

Down in the back yard, my Double Queen hellebore is done for the year, and I don't remember the flowers turning such deep green last year. I would be very happy if this one would make babies, but so far it hasn't.

Another really great early-flowering plant for this area is the flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, which actually is a northwest native. Mine are all in full bloom right now. They're deciduous, have a much more open structure, and bloom nicely in moderate shade. They're also very tolerant of summer dryness once they get established, which makes them another no-brainer plant. Except for wanting a bit more sunlight than the cammies, they don't seem to be picky about anything. I find these little flowers very charming. When the clusters first start popping out, they look like tiny mittens or socks hanging all over the bare branches, and then as soon as the flowers open, the first leaves come out too.

I hope you're getting to enjoy your garden this year!