For those of us that have grown up with camellias, we have always appreciated the unique
winter blooming characteristic of camellias. It is so unusual to have a beautiful evergreen shrub in our landscapes that add color when most of the garden is asleep. It seems that every year as fall approaches, we begin to get excited because our beautiful camellias should soon begin to start blooming. In the same sense, we become just a little sad in the spring as we see our last camellia blooms fade away. Just like many of you, I have always imagined what it would be like if we could have our favorite plants blooming all year long. In July of 2005, I had a glimpse of what the future may hold for camellias and their potentially expanded blooming season.
A few years ago, I read and article that was published in the International Camellia Society’s journal about a new camellia species from China that could possibly bloom all year long. The article was written by Mr. GAO Jiyin who is probably the leading authority on camellias in China. According to Mr. GAO’s article, this very rare and unique camellia species had been discovered in 1986 in Guangdong Province, China. This unusual species was called Camellia azalea, and it was reported in the article that it greatly differed from other species of camellias in that its primary blooming season was from March through December, with some flowers still blooming in January and February. Another very interesting fact that was claimed in Mr. GAO’s article was how well this camellia species performed when blooming during the extreme hot weather. GAO reports that Camellia azalea can bloom and hold its blooms for over 10 days when the temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This characteristic would be very different from the camellias that most of us are familiar with. Most camellia species and varieties prefer cool and cold temperatures when they flower. If you have ever seen your camellias in bloom on an unusually warm day, you have probably notice that the blooms tend to droop when the temperatures are warm. Many camellia experts that I talked with about Mr. GAO’s article on Camellia azalea were very pessimistic about a camellia really existing that could perform well in the heat.
After reading Mr. GAO’s article, I contacted Hulyn Smith who was the Chairman of the Research Committee of the American Camellia Society. I encouraged Hulyn to see if it were possible to have the American Camellia Society obtain plant material of Camellia azalea. After some negotiations with Mr. GAO, ACS was able to obtain several shipments of Camellia azalea cuttings. About the same time, Longwood Gardens also was able to procure plant material of Camellia azalea as well. The results of both organizations’ work with this new camellia species were similar. Both groups found that Camellia azalea would root, but it did not seem to grow very well from rooted cuttings. Longwood grafted several scions onto regular camellias successfully. Within a couple of years, their grafted plants of Camellia azalea were blooming at unusual times of the year for camellias.
My first actual experience with Camellia azalea was in the fall of 2002 when Hulyn Smith invited me to visit him in Valdosta Georgia. Hulyn asked me to take some of the original cuttings back to Savannah to see if I could find anything that might work better in growing this new species. I brought back a few rooted cuttings, and we began out research work with Camellia azalea at Gene’s Nursery. Since most of the cuttings had little or no roots on them and since they appeared to be lacking the necessary nutrients, I did an approach graft of one of the cutting to a well established rootstock in the garden. The graft began to form callus on both the scion and the rootstock, and eventually the graft grew about 10-12 inches. The remaining cuttings were potted in different soil mixes and given tender love and care, but all of them slowly died. The next year, I took scions from the previous year’s growth on the graft, and I grafted 2 more plants on well established rootstocks in the garden. This time, I was able to do cleft grafts instead of an approach graft. Both new cleft grafts of Camellia azalea were successful. However, for some unknown reason, the original approach graft died.
For the past two years, both grafts of Camellia azalea have been growing slowly but steadily. Last year during July of 2005, I was visiting Mark Crawford in Valdosta, and I saw Camellia azalea in bloom for the first time. Mark’s plant had several blooms on it during some very hot weather. I had one of my plants set 2 buds this year. Both blooms opened on June 22 and remained very fresh for 3 days during temperatures in Savannah of 98 degrees Fahrenheit. After 3 days, I removed the flowers in an attempt to save some pollen for future breeding, so I don’t know if they would have actually lasted 10 days as was indicated in Mr. GAO’s article. Hopefully, in the next few years, we will have more flowers on larger plants to evaluate.
We need to find out more about the specific growing requirements of this species. Also, we need to learn about Camellia azalea’s breeding potential. In the short run, I can say that I have never seen any camellia bloom that performed as well in the warm weather. In fact, it appeared to be very happy with the excessively hot temperatures.
I have been growing camellias for most of my life, and I have seen many different things with camellias that have excited me greatly. However, I must admit that nothing has ever excited me as much with camellias as my experience of seeing this “Summer Blooming” camellia species for the first time in my garden. If we can find better ways to grow this unique camellia species and/or find ways to hybridize its genetics with our winter blooming camellias, we may soon find summer blooming and extended season blooming camellias to be part of our normal perception of camellias.
Author: Gene Phillips, Savannah,, GA
Photo credit: C. azalea Gene Phillips Savannah GA USA Taken June 2006