In the Garden:
Camellia japonica 'Tricolor' is among the spring bloomers for USDA Zone 6 and warmer.
Yes, Hardy Camellias with Spring Blossoms
Writing this "In My Garden" column keeps me on my toes. In my December 4 column, I dismissed spring-blooming camellias based on my experience in the late 1990s and early 2000, when the plants' flower buds turned brown in winter then dropped. That's old news. I stand corrected.
There ARE beautiful, spring-blooming camellia cultivars for USDA Zone 6B, says Charles Cresson, consulting horticulturist and Pennsylvania author. He grows them very nicely in Swarthmore, thank you. Advantageous placement and winter protection may extend their hardiness into Zone 6A.
"Yes, I think they work quite well and there's a lot to choose from now," Cresson observed. "It's all a matter of selecting the right ones to perform. Of course, they have to be winter-hardy. Not all those that are hardy will be good garden plants this far north. Some Camellia japonica, even the same species, will die to the ground. Others will take all that our winters will throw at them."
According to Cresson, 2002 and 2007 are significant in Camellia culture because Camellia expert William L. Ackerman reported on his hardy new breeds in his books Growing Camellias in Cold Climates and Beyond the Camellia Belt: Breeding, Propagating, and Growing Cold-Hardy Camellias.
Ackerman listed the hardiest of old camellia varieties. He used those to breed new hardy shrubs. Several are gorgeous, reliable spring-bloomers, noted Cresson, who grows his favorites in his home gardens. Spring-bloomers are best planted in spring in a shady west-facing or southwest position with sun at day's end, he added.
"If I were to choose four, they'd be 'Kumasaka', 'April Remembered', 'Spring's Promise', and 'April Rose'," Cresson said. "If you want a really good red, 'Paulette Goddard'."
Standard spring-blooming Camellia japonica varieties rating three stars or better include light pink, nearly single 'Berenice Boddy'; early to mid-season, semi-double, rose-pink with yellow stamens 'R.L. Wheeler'; mid-season, white with carmine streaked 'Tricolor'; mid-season, semi-double, white 'Leucantha'; mid- to late-season, semi-double, loose peony form, dark red 'Paulette Goddard'; late-blooming, 400-year-old, deep rose pink 'Kumasaka'; and semi-double, bicolor, pale pink with crimson edged 'Meredith'.
Ackerman's Hardy Hybrids
The April series from parents 'Berenice Boddy' and 'Kumasaka' are at their best in -- surprise -- April, when the weather's not cold enough to damage flowers, not hot enough to shorten flower life, Cresson explained. Single, deep rose pink 'Spring's Promise' has a very long bloom season that starts before spring. It's very tolerant of the cold, opening only a few buds early -- to test the temperature, Cresson said. Flowers opening later come out perfectly.
Ackerman's light pink, semi-double 'Pink Icicle' and red, semi-double
'Kuro Delight' are outstanding AND extremely hardy, Cresson added.
Camellias grow best in semi-shade. They respond to temperature, Cresson explained. A garden with early, mid-, and late-flowering camellias will have nearly 3 months of bloom -- February, March, April into May. Depending on variety, one camellia may bloom from 3 to 5 weeks. In a long warm spell, some buds will start to swell. When it gets cold, buds will hold in semi-swollen position. Varieties that open in cold weather can take the cold, he added.
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