Camellias have been known to trigger acute plant envy in Northern U.S. gardeners. If only those voluptuous blooms came on hardier shrubs that could withstand sub-zero temperatures.
As a matter of fact, in some cases they do. Although most camellias trace their origins to mild subtropical and maritime areas of East Asia, a few hail from chillier regions. These cold-hardy camellias have contributed their genes to the development of new varieties that are as happy in Newport, Rhode Island as they are in Newport News, Virginia.
Hardy Camellia Origins
Many of these winter-ready camellias owe their toughness to arguably the hardiest species in the genus, Camellia oleifera. Widely cultivated in China for its seed oil, it occurs in the wild as far north as Shaanxi Province, where winter temperatures resemble those in south-coastal New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic. In American gardens, it’s grown chiefly for its fragrant, white, 2- to 3-inch-flowers, borne in fall on large, shrubby plants furnished with oval, evergreen leaves that taper at the tips. The handsome gray-brown bark makes an eye-catching winter feature.
Camellia oleifera proved its hardiness in a series of bitterly cold winters that clobbered the eastern U.S. in the late 1970s. Of hundreds of decades-old camellias at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., only a dozen or so survived – including several selections and hybrids of this rugged species. Subsequently, horticulturists have used Camellia oleifera to produce a number of comely cultivars that flourish into USDA Zone 6 (0 to minus 10 degrees F minimum temperatures). Most of them produce pink or white, 3-inch-wide, single to double flowers in early to mid-fall (the earlier the better, so as to escape damage from Arctic spells).
Camellia oleifera and its progeny are not the only hardy camellias on the block, however. Recent introductions of Camellia japonica from Korea and northern Japan are also blessed with USDA Zone 6 hardiness. Handsome year-round, they typically form dense 6- to 12-foot shrubs with lustrous, leathery, evergreen leaves and early-spring flushes of rich-red, 2- to 3-inch-wide flowers accented with yellow stamens.
Thanks to these two species, gardeners in Zone 6 can now do the formerly unthinkable: enjoy a fall and spring garden display of showy camellias.
Fall-Blooming Hardy Camellias
Camellia ‘Autumn Spirit’
Combining the showy flowers of the cold-tender Camellia sasanqua with the Zone 6 hardiness of Camellia oleifera, this highly prized hybrid bears zingy, double rose-pink flowers in early to mid-autumn, well before freezing weather threatens. They’re lovely planted in combination with Colchicum ‘Waterlily’. The dense, 8-foot plants have relatively small, dark green leaves.
Camellia ‘Snow Flurry’
Two of the hardiest white-flowered camellias (‘Plain Jane’ and ‘Frost Princess’) teamed up to produce this beautiful, tough-as-nails cultivar. Frilly white pompons appear in early to mid-autumn on a fast-growing shrub that takes well to early spring pruning and winters reliably through Zone 6. Combine it with Anemone japonica ‘Whirlwind’ and Ilex glabra ‘Ivory Queen’ for a fall symphony in white.
Single white flowers open in mid-fall on vigorous 10- to 20-foot plants. A hybrid of Camellia oleifera, it lives up to its name by consistently showing superior hardiness in cold-winter climates (to USDA Zone 6).
Camellia ‘Winter’s Star’
Named for the shape of its single, lavender-pink flowers, ‘Winter’s Star’ actually commences bloom in October, well before the onset of winter weather in Zone 6 (where it’s perfectly hardy). It forms an open, conical, 10- to 12-foot shrub.
Spring-Blooming Hardy Camellias
Camellia japonica ‘April Remembered’
No cold-climate camellia produces anything more luscious than the 5-inch-wide, semi-double, creamy-pink flowers of this remarkably hardy 1996 introduction from Camellia Forest Nursery. It rapidly forms a vigorous, 6- to 10-foot shrub with large rich-green leaves. If you garden in USDA Zone 6 but want bodacious Southern belle camellias, ‘April Remembered’ is the place to start. And yes – it does bloom during the first warm days of April, or sometimes March.
Camellia japonica ‘Bloomfield’
Brilliant red flowers, lush foliage, and a large, dense, rounded habit make for one of best all-around camellias for Zone 6 gardens. The single, 3-inch-wide blooms occur in flushes during mild spells in late winter and early spring. The original plant – grown from Korean seed at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia – is more than 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
Camellia japonica ‘Korean Fire’
Smoldering-red, six-petaled, 2-inch-wide flowers repeat from late winter through early spring, weather permitting. Perhaps the hardiest camellia variety introduced to date, ‘Korean Fire’ is well worth trying in favorable microclimates into USDA Zone 5. Plants grow to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
All camellias grow best in acid, friable, humus-rich soil, with protection from north winds and strong sunlight. If you garden in sandy or heavy soil, give your camellia an extra-wide planting hole (at least 3 times wider than the root ball), and amend the backfill with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Spring planting and a yearly application of an inch or two of compost are also advisable, whatever the soil.