Alabamans have been busy observing the state’s bicentennial — 200 years since Alabama declared statehood — with parades, exhibits and programs. Over these two centuries, we have seen turmoil and we have seen calm, and we sing “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Like other states Alabama has bragging rights to certain symbols. There are 21 Alabama symbols (including a state nut — the pecan). No state fruit; I would like to nominate the peach.

• State bird is the Northern flicker, also known as the yellowhammer (we are the only state to claim a woodpecker as state bird).

• State insect is the monarch butterfly.

• State butterfly and mascot is the eastern tiger swallowtail.

• State tree is the southern longleaf pine.

• State wildflower is the oakleaf hydrangea.

• State flower is the camellia.

One might have thought our state flower would be one native to our state or at least to the USA. The beloved camellia, however, has come thousands of miles (from China and Japan) to be planted and admired by residents (and the government). Large camellia displays abound in Alabama botanical gardens and home landscapes.

Our state wildflower, the oak leaf hydrangea, is a native and existed in Alabama since before the Europeans reached our shores.

Camellias are the perfect plant for the novice or the collector. They vary in size, form and growth habits. Camellia-lovers have access to a wide range of species and cultivars from which to choose, each one more beautiful than the other.

Thousands of named camellias are available for sale. They can bloom from late September to early spring. There are now more cold-tolerant and heat-tolerant hybrids, thus more gardeners in colder or warmer climate zones can share the wealth.

There are bloom colors for any enthusiast, from yellow to almost black. There are some that could actually be considered ground covers. Others, like the common camellia (japonica), can reach 12 feet high and as wide. Bloom sizes range from the enormous flower on ‘R. L. Wheeler’ to the diminutive blossoms of ‘Sparkling Burgundy’.

What is a gardener to do? Become knowledgeable about this dazzling ornamental shrub; choose the right camellia for the right place.

The most popular camellia is possibly the dramatic Camellia japonica; some cultivars have very large magnificent flowers; other blooms are dainty and delicate. Many of these blooms are so perfect they resemble porcelain (‘Nuccio’s Gem’).

Japonicas can become very large shrubs or small trees. Their glossy evergreen leaves make them a fantastic garden addition even when the blooming season is over. Some japonica cultivars can handle our heat; some cannot. Others can handle our cold, and others cannot. It is important to make choices based on your particular environment.

Japonicas also have blooming seasons: early, mid-season and late. The blooms can stretch from early winter (about the time the sasanquas finish their bloom cycle) to early spring. My mother often said, “Camellias can break your heart; as soon as the flowers start to bloom, there is a frost and the flowers are gone.” (She was right, too!)

Another popular camellia is the Camellia sasanqua. Some gardeners are not as infatuated with the sasanqua, as the blooms are not as drop-dead gorgeous as those of the japonica. Sasanqua blooms tend to be smaller and less outstanding. The sasanqua shrub (or small tree) can have hundreds of blooms.

Sasanquas tend to better tolerate the sun and heat. They can get quite large, but they fit easily into the garden; they are less picky about the soil. They begin to bloom in late September, when there is not as much going on in the garden, and bloom all fall into very early winter. My favorite is ‘Jean May’. This beauty does not have an over-the top bloom but instead a charming pale pink blossom.

There are other camellias which may not be commonly found in homeowners’ gardens but merit a place. One is the Camellia sinensis. In Asia, it is grown to make tea, thus its alternate name “the tea plant.” In Alabama, it is grown for ornamental purposes. Typically, this camellia blooms in the fall; cultivars have fragrant flowers.

Camellia reticulata has spectacular flowers that tend to be bigger and bolder than those of the japonica. C. reticulata can get 50 feet tall, and it dislikes pruning. At times it can be difficult to find “the right place” for it, but it belongs in every camellia collection.

These are just a very small sample of the multitude of exquisite camellias you will find on the market. A wonderful way to get to know camellias is to visit garden centers during the blooming season. Prepare yourself to be overwhelmed! Take a big vehicle to bring your purchases home.

Once you have chosen your beauties to plant, there are a few simple rules to help them flourish:

Cold tolerance

It is vital to know how much cold a cultivar can tolerate, as different cultivars have different levels of hardiness. The usual victim of too much cold is the opened bloom (rather than the shrub itself). Many a morning I have come out after a cold night to find the flowers mushy and brown. A tightly closed bloom can fair better.

Sun or shade

Camellias prefer partial shade with protection from our hot afternoon sun. Dappled shade is probably the favorite. The strong morning sun in the winter can be hard on a camellia.

I have seen the leaves get sunburned when they were planted in a beating hot sun.

The south side of a house can be more difficult, especially for a young plant, as the south side can get baking hot heat. The bigger and older a plant gets, the more sun it can handle.

Planting

As do the majority of plants, camellias prefer well-drained soil that has been amended with organic material. Fall planting is probably the best, as the camellias have time to work on a hardy root system, although early winter planting works well. (The later we plant in the spring the more care a plant will need over the summer.)

The quickest way to kill a camellia is to plant it too deeply. Plant it high. Do not keep piling mulch on the trunk; that allows insects in and causes the camellia to become too deeply planted.

Watering

As with most newly installed plants, watering is critical until that plant is firmly established. Pay special attention during the first season. Older camellias can actually be drought-tolerant. Just as we need to water, we do not need to overwater. Overwatering can cause the roots to rot in a heartbeat.

Soil

The right soil is critical for a camellia. Like azaleas, camellias prefer an acid soil. Before choosing the first camellia, have a soil test done to assure that the camellia comes into a place where it can grow without a struggle.

Camellias are not a super demanding plant, but they must have well-drained soil. Without it, their lives may be doomed.

Fertilizer

Do not fertilize unless you have taken a soil test to see if fertilizer is needed You cannot cure a sick plant with fertilizer.

Pruning

I do very little pruning on my camellias other than to remove long straggly shoots. I do, however, limb them up (remove the bottom limbs) and use the shady spots under the shrubs to add a few shade lovers. If you decide to prune, make sure to do it when blooming has ended, or there will be no blooms that year.

Issues

The only problem I have had with my camellias is a nasty pest called tea scale that manages to lodge on the underside of the leaf. The few times tea scale has invaded, I used horticultural oil to banish it.

I am a neat freak, so I pick up the dead blooms around my plants. That may not be a necessary chore, unless your plant has gotten camellia petal blight (flowers turn brown very quickly and drop). Then a clean up is a must.

Good things

The deer do not eat my camellias!

When you have camellias, every day is a surprise to see what new flower opened overnight.

A camellia’s blooms remind me of a small perfect painting, only better, because we can all have one.

There has been a big push by garden writers and gardeners of note to plant native (a plant that occurs naturally). Natives are great for so many reasons, but we should share our gardens with desirable non-native plants like camellias.

Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com. Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star.

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