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The most familiar and iconic of these winter-blooming shrubs are Camellia japonica, Asian natives that arrived in the United States around 1798. Despite their aura of Southern gentility, they were introduced in the chilly Northeast and became a status symbol among those who could afford greenhouses where they could be grown. Decades later these tender plants became popular in the milder South, where they could thrive outdoors in all their abundance and diversity.
Camellia flowers are universally adored for their gentle, regular form and their pure colors. 'Otome' (left) is a deeply venerated Japanese variety with porcelain-like flowers and delicate veining.
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Candy-Colored BloomsThe lush combination of candy-colored flowers and burnished evergreen foliage gives camellias an elegant mystique. Alexandre Dumas's tragedy The Lady of the Camellias tells the story of a love triangle featuring Dumas, Franz Liszt, and the lady in question. Less star-crossed gardeners adore camellias for their symmetrical flowers and clear colors, and marvel at the fact that their exotic blooms open and thrive in the dead of winter. (They were Coco Chanel's favorite flowers.) Historically, the beauties graced the estates and conservatories of the wealthiest Americans. But over the years, their surprising ease of propagation and universal appeal have emboldened plant breeders and gardeners, resulting in a broader range of colors, habits, and hardiness. Now camellias flourish in gardens countrywide, as simple to grow as azaleas or holly.
The white mottling on this 'Ville de Nantes' (left) is a moire variegation, an attractive trait that is often the result of a virus.
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Southern CharmIn the 1940s and '50s, Henry and Margaret Backus drove all over the South collecting camellia plants and cuttings for the garden at their Greek Revival home in Savannah, Georgia. With its careful documentation and enormous variety, the Backuses' garden has become an important resource for recording the history of these plants. As a little boy, Lin, the Backuses' son, regularly accompanied his parents on their trips. Today he cares for their camellias. In an effort to identify and preserve the region's forgotten varieties, he has worked with Gene Phillips, president of the Savannah-based Southeastern Camellia Society, to document the collection.
Meanwhile, farther north, a researcher discovered that camellias could be more cold hardy than previously thought. In 1979, William Ackerman, a research geneticist at the U.S. National Arboretum, noticed that a 30-year-old fall-blooming Camellia oleifera had withstood brutal winters that killed the other camellias in the collection. Working with that sturdy specimen, he developed other species that have proved reliably hardy in cold climates: They bloom in autumn, before the wintry temperatures that turn flowers and partially open buds a leathery brown, even in the warm and temperate Zones 7 to 9 where the plants typically thrive.
'Reverend John Bennett' (left) was introduced in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Magnolia Plantation, which dates from the 1600s.
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Spring SonnetJust about all camellias are refreshingly easy to please, requiring light shade and moist, well-drained acidic soil with high organic matter. Mulch will protect their shallow roots and set off their lustrous evergreen foliage. If your garden is at the outer limits of camellia hardiness, plant in early spring in a sheltered location to give the root system enough time to establish itself before the cold weather returns. Then prepare to be charmed.
The Backuses' garden in Savannah, Georgia, contains many classic camellia varieties. 'Spring Sonnet' resembles an azalea.
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Mature live oak trees on the Backus property provide the shade that creates ideal growing conditions.
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Windy DayOn a windy day, Spanish moss blows onto the camellias in Lin Backuses' garden, as shown with an 'Otome.'
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Lin BakusLin Backus tends the garden he grew up in.
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Winter-Flowering PlantsShowy and brilliant, these blooms bring the promise of spring.
1 . 'Betty Sheffield': A small, modest variety, its flowers vary from plant to plant.
2. 'White Empress': The pretty, fluted petals surround abundant pollen-encrusted stamens.
3. 'Alba Plena': This classic beauty was one of the first camellias to reach the Western world.
4. 'Sarasa': Japanese American nurseryman K. Sawada introduced this cultivar in the 1920s. It has, sadly, all but disappeared.
5.' Otome': The flowers may be small, but a perfect form makes it sublime.
6. 'Debutante': This crowd-pleasing pink variety was developed in America in the 1930s.
7. 'Herme': Also called 'Hikarugenji,' this popular plant is difficult to propagate.
8. 'Revered John Bennett': Large, open flowers in an unusual shade of pink are accented by fine white stripes.
9. 'Donckelaeri': This antique variety is a parent of the showier 'Ville de Nantes'.
10. 'Gunsmoke': It bears very large flowers in abundance.
11. 'Professor Sargent': The dense powder-puff blooms are a bright lipstick red.
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As hardy as they are gorgeous, these varieties create color in the fading garden.
1 . 'Lu Shan Show': This is the variety William Ackerman used to breed cold-hardy plants. It has a loose, wild look.
2. 'Winter's Interlude': The flowers are small but fully double.
3. 'Winter's Star': The large flowers are early-blooming Ackerman hybrids.
4. 'Winter's Snowman': Many of these blooms display a lovely central petal formation. It has, sadly, all but disappeared.
5. 'Long Island Pink': Discovered in a New York garden, it has very dark foliage.
6. 'Ashton's Ballet': Dark pink and with many petals, it's an unusual variety
7. 'Londontowne Blush': Large, single-petaled pink flowers on vigorous, upright plants.
8. 'Eskimo Dawn': This looks somewhat like the showier white japonica types.
9. 'Sparkling Burgundy': This has the deepest, richest color of all fall-blooming camellias.
10. 'Ashton's Supreme': Blooms early in fall with semi-double magenta flowers.
11. 'Winter's Joy': This shrub has an upright growth habit.
12. 'Snow Flurry': A simple, white example of the peony form.
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Singular Antique BeautyLady Vansittart' originated in Japan and was introduced to Belgium in the 1880s. The petals may vary in color, from white to pink, but always softly display the carmine striping and blotching that make the blooms so spectacular.
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Camellia ArrangementAlthough camellias are not generally used in flower arrangements, you will want to cut them and bring them inside when a biting frost threatens. Instead of turning brown outside, the tender buds and flowers will shine and bring their particular elegance into your home. In Lin Backus's formal dining room, gorgeous 'Coral Pink Lotus' complements the vintage wallpaper his mother adored.