Japanese Camellia, Camellia japonica. American gardeners in the South know and love the Camellia japonica, a landscape shrub, bush, or tree that can grow 20 feet tall. The Camellia japonica became an important garden landscape plant in the World War II war years in the 1940’s when Dr. Tom Brightwell collected a large Camellia cultivar planting at the University of Georgia Experimental Station at Tifton, Georgia, that is still actively maintained as a Camellia arboretum for gardeners to tour publicly and to compare varieties, color of flower blooms, flower size, and flower density studies. Several hundred Camellia shrubs, bushes, and trees are planted and growing at the Tifton, Georgia location. Camellia japonica was the favorite flowering plant of Dr. Tom Brightwell, although he planted Camellia Sasanqua trees and bushes also in the garden. Dr. Brightwell not only planted Camellia seed, but he selected the outstanding cultivars and grafted or budded those Camellia varieties named by him onto Camellia seedling rootstock.
Several other well known Camellia gardens are located in the United States; The Burden Center at Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Bellingrath Gardens at Theodore, Alabama; The City Park at New Orleans, Louisiana; Clemson, South Carolina Botanical Gardens; Atlanta, Georgia, Botanical Garden; Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando, Florida; The United States National Arboretum, Washington D.C.; Thomas H. Perkins III Camellia Garden, Brookhaven, Mississippi; Huntington Camellia Garden, California; Massee Lane Camellia Garden, Fort Valley, Georgia; and the Vale Camellia Garden, Waltham, Massachusetts.
The Massee Lane Camellia garden was donated as the headquarters for the American Camellia Society organized in 1945. The Camellia japonica shrubs, bushes, and trees are planted under the shade of pine trees and flowering Southern Magnolia trees as shading that is required for the best Camellia plant growth. The 9 acre Camellia tree garden is bordered by brick walkways, where over 1000 Camellia shrubs and trees can be viewed and enjoyed by the public during the fall, winter, and spring.
Dr. Tom Brightwell of the Tifton, Georgia Camellia garden exchanged Camellia plants with the land donor of Massee Camellia gardens, Mr. David C. Strother. Dr. Brightwell also researched the Camellia and exchanged Camellia cultivars with William Hertrich of Huntington Camellia Gardens in Los Angeles, California and with numerous Camellia researchers at Massee Lane Gardens, 100 Massee Lane, Fort Valley, Georgia, the headquarters of the American Camellia Society.
The Huntington Botanical Garden in Los Angeles, California boasts a Camellia garden of 1200 different cultivars of Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua that covers twelve acres for public viewing of the Camellia blooms during the flowering season. The superintendent, Mr. William Hertich, of the Camellia garden planted thousands of Camellia seed to be used as a rootstock on grafting superior Camellia cultivars. These seedling rootstock resulted in the growth and selection of hundreds of new hybrid Camellia selections, many of which still grow at the garden today. William Hertich devoted many years of his life growing and photographing the Camellia trees and flowers. Mr. Hertich published his work on the Camellia plant in 3 volumes at the Huntington Camellia Gardens.
Other very large Camellia gardens outside the United States are the Peter Fisher Camellia Garden in Hamburg, Germany and the Royal Botanical Camellia Garden in Melbourne, Australia. The Higo Camellia bonsai Camellia plants from Japan can be seen at the Huntington Camellia Gardens along with aromatic, fragrant Camellia cultivars and a large collection of Camellia Sasanqua introductions from Nuccio’s Nursery of Altadena, California. A new important book by Ann Richardson, A curator’s Introduction to the Camellia Collection, can be purchased from the Huntington Library Press for $14.95 and is filled with valuable information for any lover of the Camellia flower, tree, or plants.
Growing Camellia plants into trees takes many years unless you buy a large flowering size Camellia tree that can be very expensive.. Very few perennial evergreen shrubs display the beautiful form in the landscape and the massing flowering habit of the Camellia. The Camellia japonica has the flower colors of pink, red, white, purple, and peppermint. The Camellia japonica can begin blooming as early as December and continues into March and April on some varieties, depending on weather warm-ups during the winter. Camellia shrubs and trees resent being transplanted in the landscape from one spot to another, and often die unless transplanting takes place during the winter. Even then, the Camellia does not transplant well, and can sit inert in a location showing little growth, if any, and many times will decline in size or die unless a large root-ball is dug. Camellia plants should be purchased from a nursery growing in a container, so that a full root system can be planted and grown. Never buy a Camellia plant bare root!
Camellia shrubs and trees prefer light or heavy shade for growing, and pine trees or flowering magnolia trees are the perfect companion plants for the Camellia shrub. Full sun will burn the leaves of a Camellia shrub except for interior leaves and no one wants a plant looking like that in a landscape garden. The discovery of the plant hormone, gibberellic acid, with its accelerative growth effect on individual flowers of the Camellia became an important method of winning prizes at Camellia flower shows. A normal Camellia flower, teacup size, could be treated with a drop of gibberellic acid at an inferior (lower) bud, and the teacup size flower would continue to grow to the size of a dinner plate. This treatment process has become important in treating other plant products to increase growth size of flowers, fruits, leaves, and in rooting hormone mixtures and seed germination.
A unique characteristic of both the Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua is the beautiful and spectacular bloom-drop circle that forms beneath the tree, surrounding the plant after older flowers fall and shatter on the ground. The glow of the fallen petals in the circle increases as the season progresses and many gardener’s view the bloom-drop circle as fanciful and beautiful as the fresh flowers remaining on the tree. The Camellia Sasanqua is often and commonly called simply, Sasanqua. The Sasanqua flower colors of red, white, pink, purple, and peppermint are the same colors, but smaller than the Camellia japonica blooms. The Camellia Sasanqua can grow 16 feet tall and blooms earlier (October to March) than Camellia japonica. The leaves are a glowing waxy green and evergreen with a slight curving habit. Single red, white, or pink flowers of Sasanqua are preferred by most buyers, but double flowering Sasanqua is stunning when in full bloom. The Sasanqua provides a perfect specimen landscape plant that will tolerate full sun, and is most often used in Zone 6-9 as a privacy hedge for screening out noisy neighbors.