NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — Remind me not to plant camellias.

Not that camellias (Camellia japonica) aren’t wonderful plants, with their elegant, sometimes fragrant, blossoms and their glossy, evergreen foliage. But where I garden, with winter lows dipping to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s just too dang cold for camellias — outdoors, at least.

Still, some new, relatively cold-hardy varieties are bringing camellias farther north than they used to grow.

SOME TOLERATE MORE COLD THAN OTHERS

Camellias are among the Southern belles that I and many other gardeners contending with frigid winters long for. (Two other favorites of mine are southern magnolia and gardenia. I can just imagine the fragrance of a full-size gardenia in bloom near my terrace!)

Camellias are generally considered to be reliably cold-hardy where temperatures stay above about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Even there, they are occasionally burned back by cold or killed.

Most of the 2,000-plus varieties are so-called Japanese camellias. They are the ones that spread their single, semi-double, or double blossoms up to 5 inches in diameter in fall, winter or early spring. In mild winter climates, this plant might grow 20 feet high. Varieties differ in how much cold they can tolerate, with Lady Clare, White Empress, Bernice Boddy, Governor Mouton, Kumasaka and Pink Perfection being among the toughest.

NEW, COLD-HARDIER CAMELLIAS

Sasanqua camellia, another species (C. sasanqua), is cold-hardy below zero, but not much below zero. It has smaller flowers, leaves and stature than Japanese camellias, and a more lax and open growth habit. Still, it would be folly to try growing either sasanqua camellia or Japanese camellia this far north.

My near foray into the world of camellias can be blamed on William Ackerman, a plant breeder at the U. S. National Arboretum. We can also blame Maryland’s frigid winter of 1977. Because that winter decimated most of the arboretum’s camellia collection, survivors spurred interest in cold-hardier camellias.

Among the survivors of that 1977 onslaught was a variety of Tea Oil camellia (C. oleifera) named Lu Shan Snow. Although Tea Oil camellia is not particularly hardy, Lu Shan Snow is, and Ackerman incorporated it into bloodlines for the super-hardy camellias he developed.

Lu Shan Snow, incidentally, was a find in its own right. Its fragrant flowers appear in late fall or, in colder areas, early spring. The plant tolerates temperatures to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit!

Ackerman’s hybrids are a bit hardier than even Lu Shan Snow, down to about minus 12 degrees. They blossom in fall, the blossoming season lasting a month or more and beginning at a very young age. These new hybrid varieties include Polar Ice, Snow Flurry, Winter’s Hope, Winter’s Rose, Winter’s Star, and Winter’s Charm.

ATTENTION TO SITE AND SOIL

Cold-hardy or not, camellia is not the kind of plant you just stick in the ground and then watch grow. These plants demand an acidic soil that is high in humus and moisture but well drained and low in fertility. They also enjoy a bit of shade as well as shelter from winter winds, the latter especially important the further north camellias are planted. An organic mulch is a must.

These conditions are pretty much the same as those enjoyed by mountain laurels and rhododendrons. A camellia or two sure would look nice in the partially shaded bed of rhododendrons and mountain laurels I planted near the north side of my house. I’m tempted, but I don’t want to push the limits of a camellia’s cold endurance. Just a little more cold-hardiness please.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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