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Massey column: Camellias are a delight

Being a true daughter of the South, I have always loved the camellia bloom, more so than the magnolia.
The problem was, I forgot what they were from year to year. In Roanoke, Va., Camellia japonica and Camellia Sasanqua were secluded plants, tucked away in older neighborhoods, huge evergreen foundation plantings with bursts of color when fickle winter freezes allowed.
I’d drive through one neighborhood in mid-January, thinking it was an odd time to be painting, as all of the shrubbery had sheets or painter’s canvas tucked in around the bushes. Of course, it would be 15-25 degrees with the wind blowing like crazy.
On the next pass through, the coverings would have been removed, and the shrubs would be revealed in bright winter sunlight with noticeable variations of red, pink or white blooms, some the size of a teacup saucer. Yes, even then, I’d get out of the car to go get a closer look.
Imagine my delight when the Rowan County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Association hosted a speaker from the American Camellia Society. Matt Hunter, state director and president elect of the North Carolina Camellia Society, spoke at our February meeting.Accompanying him was the president of the Piedmont Triad Camellia Society, Richard Michaels. The presentation showcased camellia varieties best suited for Piedmont gardens. Downtown Salisbury boasts several of the most beautiful heirloom plants, many dating back to the 1920s. Some may even be the varieties touted as the best performers to be found in gardens today.
As noted by our speaker, Pink Perfection is a large japonica variety with light pink, formal double blossoms that cover the shrub and blooms all at once. Lady Clare, another japonica, has deep salmon pink semi-double blossoms with large stamens and again, blooms all at once. Both of these were mainstays in older, established gardens, dating back to 1887, and continue to be popular and available today.
The japonica camellias are Japanese in origin. Their bloom time is early to late winter, continuing into spring. Camellia Sasanqua are noted for their fall and early winter color. For some, the C. Sasanqua is a hardier, more heat- and sun-tolerant shrub.
With my curiosity stoked by Matt Hunter’s program, I invited myself to the 5th Annual Sandhills Camellia Society’s 2009 Show. The tented event was held in Pinehurst with participants not only from the Sandhills’ area, but also from South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia, among others.
As a novice, I went online and printed the show rules and reviewed the classes and descriptions of the entries. I was not prepared for the variety and beauty of the specimen blooms as presented for the judges to view. From the miniatures with compact symmetry, to the show-stopping fluffy peony varieties, I loved them all. Harder to comprehend were the “unprotected” and “protected” entries that showed little or no variation, except perhaps in size. And after sitting in on a camellia “jibbing” seminar, I think I understand why. Applying gibberellic acid forces some blooms to open earlier, and sometimes results in larger showier blooms.
If showing camellia japonicas becomes an obsession, as it easily can, then the scented Pink Persuasion japonica I purchased at the Sandhills show will be my first try. Fellow Master Gardeners Jean Lamb and Sonja Skelton and I also attended a workshop on propagation by air-layering.
We already have our eyes on several propagation-worthy camellias around town. Watch for us in early July. If you have a named variety camellia that you would like to share, just give us a call. For further information see www.camellias-acs.org or www.rowanmastergardener.com
Carole Massey is a Master Gardener Volunteer in Rowan County.

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