Winter wonder: Color the cold with camellias


File photo. File photo.

The camellia is an all-around surprising plant. First of all, this evergreen actually blooms in, of all seasons, winter. Autumn-flowering camellias bloom from November through mid-January. And while spring-blooming camellias aren’t supposed to put out flowers until March or April, “last winter and this winter they’re already blooming” by the third week of January, said Jim Murphy, landscape supervisor for the UVA Medical Center.

So if your winter landscape looks too bleak, consider filling it in with camellias. Fortunately, the time for planting is coming right up. Put your camellias in the ground “anywhere from March 15 until May 15,” said Murphy. However, do ask whether your plants were grown outdoors or in a greenhouse. “If they came from a greenhouse, you don’t want to put them out in March because then we’ll get some freezes and they’ll lose their leaves,” said Murphy.

While you’re chatting with the folks at the nursery, ask them which varieties are available.

Another surprise: Varieties hardy enough to grow here were only developed about 25 years ago. Look for names like Winter’s Beauty, Snow Flurry, and Frost Princess.

Camellias aren’t high-maintenance plants, but they do have a few requirements to grow well. The trickiest part is choosing the site. You’ll need a spot that gets part shade or part sun.

Ideally, plant camellias on the north side of your house (or a wall) to protect them from direct sun.

Test the soil and look for a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. And if your boots get covered in red clay while you’re taking the soil sample, you’ll know you need to add some organic matter. Murphy recommends Panorama Paydirt compost or well-composted leaves from the bottom of your leaf pile.

Once your camellia is in the ground, raise a cup of tea to it. The most famous member of the camellia family is Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as the tea plant.