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May 6, 2009 > Pat Kite's Garden: Camellias

Pat Kite's Garden: Camellias

By Pat Kite

Bob Ehrhart has 600 camellias in his ultra-expanded Walnut Creek garden. They are red, pink, white, striped and multihued. They are huge and teensy, singles, fluffies, and peony resemblers. He even has a yellow camellia, award-winner, of course. During our recent Friends of Heirloom Flowers visit, a few folk got to take home a tidbit. Survival has started in a potting medium.

This month and next are good camellia purchase times, while camellias are still in flower. It helps, when dealing with such a long-lived plant, to see the blossom color and size that you will adore for the next century, or two. This is not a joke. Camellias in Kunming, China have taken 300 years to reach 45 feet high; these shrubs can be slow growers. If you want a big one, right away, get a larger size to start with. But be careful about any with squashed roots in a too-small container. The roots form a hard mass that permanently discourages growth.

There are all sorts of legends about Camellias, and I do love a story. If you have ever sniffed a pretty camellia expecting fragrance; seldom a smidge is found. Why? Well, according to one Roman myth, camellias did have fragrance once upon a time. But when Cupid shot arrows made of camellia wood, no romance happened. This made the goddess Venus unhappy. So, as punishment, she decreed that camellia flowers would be pretty, but scentless.

Another tale comes from China. A disciple of the Buddha brought the first camellias to ancient China. One day, during meditation, he started falling asleep. To stay awake, he removed his eyelids and threw them on the ground. Here they immediately took root, growing into tea plants, Camellia sinensis.

How did "tea" as a drink come about? Another tale from long ago. A Buddhist was boiling water over a fire constructed of camellia branches. He accidentally dropped some plant leaves into the water pot. After a bit, for some reason, he tasted the water. Quite pleasant and refreshing. And so it started.

We have the famed Boston tea party and our current tea tax hubris. At least half the world drinks tea. There are about 250 Camellia species, different ones for different uses and times of year, and yes, a few have fragrance. Who named the plant group? Linnaeus... in honor of Jesuit missionary Georg Josef Kamel, a noted contributor to botanical science.

Onward. Plant your camellia in a position protected from hot sunshine and wind. Acid soil and good drainage abet success. Easy on the fertilizer. Water in the evening or early morning, doing so at ground level rather than on leaves and flowers. Mulch to conserve moisture.

If camellias get you really excited, check out the American Camellia Society website. There are beautiful pictures, history and use galore. Two local groups are the Santa Clara County Camellia Society and the Northern California Camellia Society. Gardens are so lovely now, and if you really look, surely there's room for another pretty plant.

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