Some Like it Cold

Some Like it Cold

Some Like it Cold

For many years, camellias have been enjoyed by gardeners of America in what has been usually described as “The Camellia Belt.”

Some Like it Cold!

by Gene Phillips

For many years, camellias have been enjoyed by gardeners of America in what has been usually described as “The Camellia Belt.” This description refers to the geographical area where most camellias find favorable growing conditions. It begins in the coastal areas of Virginia, and stretches down the Atlantic Coast all the way to Florida, then it moves westward along the gulf coast to eastern Texas, and then it jumps to southern California where it stretches northward along the west coast into the state of Washington. It is within this so called “Camellia Belt” that most of the camellias in America have been grown for the last two centuries. Temperatures within this area are relatively moderate, so the majority of camellias grow very well in these regions. However in recent years, we have witnessed the expansion of the camellia belt with the introduction of new cold hardy camellias.

Each variety of camellias has its own unique characteristics. Some have red flowers while others have white, pink, yellow, or multiple color patterns in their floral displays. Some camellia plants have very vigorous growth habits while others are very slow growing. Certain varieties of camellias are fairly disease resistant, while others seem to have more susceptibility to disease. By the same token, some camellia varieties have a greater cold hardiness than others. Each variety’s specific genetic makeup is the reason for these varying characteristics that we find within camellias. In recent years, several prominent camellia breeders recognized that certain camellia varieties contained specific cold hardiness, and they utilized this genetic characteristic through hybridization to develop many additional camellia varieties that also were extremely cold hardy.

Dr. William Ackerman of Ashton Maryland has been one of the pioneers in developing cold hardy camellias through plant breeding. Dr. Ackerman has been doing breeding work with camellias for many years. He developed several fragrant camellias such as ‘Fragrant Pink’ and ‘Cinnamon Cindy’ that are truly outstanding landscape camellias, but much of his attention in breeding shifted to developing cold hardy camellias after the extremely harsh winters from 1976-1978. During this period of time many of the camellias that had been growing past the camellia belt were killed by the extreme cold temperatures. Dr. Ackerman saw the need to attempt development of camellia varieties that possessed better cold hardiness. Much of his breeding work was done at the U.S. Plant Introduction Station at Glen Dale Maryland until his retirement, but he continues this valuable breeding work and plant evaluation today at his home in Ashton. Dr. Ackerman’s book entitled Growing Camellias in Cold Climates is one of the best reference guides for gardeners in northern areas that grow camellias. He has developed cold hardy camellias that are fall bloomers and others that bloom in the spring. Many of these fall blooming cold hardy camellias have been bred by using certain strains of extremely cold hardy varieties of Camellia oleifera. Many of his cold hardy spring bloomers have originated from breeding varieties of Camellia japonica that demonstrated resistance to cold injury. Some of my favorite cold hardy camellias from Dr. Ackerman include ‘Winter’s Beauty’, Winter’s Charm’, ‘Winter’s Star’, and ‘Polar Ice’.

Another camellia breeder that has pioneered efforts to develop cold hardy camellias is Dr. Clifford Parks of Chapel Hill North Carolina. Dr. Parks has also used some of the cold hardy varieties of Camellia oleifera in developing fall blooming cold hardy stands. Several of his outstanding cold hardy fall blooming camellias that I really like are ‘Survivor’, ‘Twighlight Glow’, and ‘Autumn Spirit’. In addition to these varieties, Dr. Parks has developed many spring blooming japonicas that are also cold hardy. I especially like ‘Red Aurora’ and ‘April Tryst’.

Growing camellias in areas with extremely cold conditions can be very different from growing camellias in the traditional camellia belt areas. In northern climates, camellias should be planted on the north or west side of buildings. It is recommended to avoid full sun locations. It would be much better to plant camellias in northern climates under evergreen trees such as Pine for protection. Traditionally in the camellia belt, fall is the recommended time for planting, but in northern climates, camellias should be planted in the spring. It is best to plant camellias in acid soils that have good draining characteristics. It is recommended to never plant camellias too deep. Always plant level with the ground or slightly above ground level, and install an adequate mulch of approximately 3-4 inches. In northern climates, do not fertilize after June, and it would be best if additional cold weather protection such as Microfoam is used during the first year or two as the new camellias are becoming established.

The development of cold hardy camellias has expanded the camellia growing areas of America far beyond the traditional barriers of the past. Today, many gardeners that had only been able to experience camellias when they visited more temperate regions can now include these cold hardy selections in their garden. In addition, many of us that live in those temperate areas of the traditional camellia belt are also able to enjoy the beauty and eloquence of these cold hardy varieties as well. Most of the cold hardy varieties do equally well in our temperate regions as they do in northern climates, but is very exhilarating to know that our neighbors to the north can now share in our love and appreciation for camellias in the garden.