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Growing Camellias in South Central Texas

Folks always want to grow what they shouldn't. Being from Tennessee, I have to have an azalea. Trying to grow azaleas is bad enough, trying to grow gardenias is bordering on insanity and trying to grow an eastern-type pine tree is reason enough for institutional commitment. So who cares if we eastern-born types are weird -- we get homesick and want some of "the homeland" in our backyards.

Several years ago I decided I wanted to plant a camellia. Sounds simple enough—so I waltzed into Fanick Garden Center and told John Fanick what I needed. Six hours later he was still describing my options. I thought it was going to be easy—like buying a car! Anyway, he finally decided what I needed and gave me the advice of the century about planting what you know you shouldn't plant, but that you're going to try anyway. These plants include azalea, gardenia and my beloved camellia.

The Fanicks say to excavate the planting area, dispose of the native soil and refill the hole with a mix of 1/3 washed sand and 2/3 peat. This mix will provide an acid medium for years, enabling plant survival. Planting in our native South Texas soil is a losing cause that creates an everlasting problem of iron chlorosis (plants yellow due to a lack of iron). To grow acid-loving plants such as azaleas or gardenias, use the artificial growing media described above. Standard potting soil is not acid enough, and will not maintain an acid condition over a long period of time because of the alkalinity bombardment of water and soil leachates.

The camellia is considered by some to be the queen of evergreen shrubs in the South and Southwest. If only for its beauty of leaf and bloom, the camellia deserves a more prominent place in our landscape but it must be handled carefully.

The camellia is a member of the tea family and is native to semitropical forest areas. The soil conditions are highly organic, light and well drained. The relative humidity is high and rainfall is plentiful.

In our area, camellias prefer light shade and can withstand winter temperatures as low as 10 degrees F. They grow best in loose, fertile soil that is lightly acid and well drained. They cannot tolerate "wet feet".

Camellia japonica, the common camellia, is the most popular species. They bloom when few other plants do--in late fall, winter and early spring. The blooms are among the most perfectly formed of any in the world. They provide the best blooms for cut-flower use since they are known for their formality, diversity and lasting qualities. The colors vary from purest white, all shades of pink and rose, to the deepest reds. The size of the bloom varies from boutonniere to six or seven inches across. The evergreen leaves are wax glossy and range from long and narrow to almost round.

The belief that the camellia is a plant requiring continual and specific maintenance and care is erroneous. They are no more difficult to grow than any other woody landscape plant. While the cost of camellias is somewhat higher than other species, this is largely due to the slower growth rate and shipping costs from growing centers in the Gulf Coast and California.

The selection of healthy container-grown plants is best. The most important point is to purchase your Camellia from a reputable nurseryman who can be relied upon to supply only high quality plants. For most Texas locations, the mid-season blooming varieties that bloom from November through February are best.

Several dependable varieties for San Antonio are listed as follows:

Glen 40 - a beautiful deep red double boom; blooms January - February. Japonica

Debutante - Produces lots of large peony-like double blooms that are light pink in color (an early bloomer which blooms in December). Japonica

Nuccio's Pearl - a fully double bloom that is white with an orchid pink blush edge; blooms January - February. Japonica

Mathotiana Supreme – extra-large crimson double bloom with loose and irregular petals; blooms January - February. Japonica

Kramer’s Supreme - deep red double bloom with a peony form and a delightful fragrance; blooms January - February. Japonica

Pearl Maxwell - soft shell pink in a double form; blooms January - February. Japonica

Nuccio's Gem - a formal to double sparkling white blooms; blooms January - February. Japonica

If camellias are to produce maximum growth and flowers, they must be planted in a growing medium that is rich in organic matter, porous, moist and well drained. In areas where sub-surface drainage remains a problem, camellias should be planted in raised beds and mulched with organic material. Enough water should be applied to moisten the soil to a depth of 15 to 18 inches. When watered in this manner, they usually will require watering only every 10 days to two weeks during dry weather. Cultivation around camellias should be avoided. A good mulch will discourage weeds. Camellias don't like pampering. Plant healthy plants properly and they will respond with a minimum amount of care.


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