Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, 47 acres of botanical bliss fronting the Pacific Ocean

Introduction to Camellias

Camellias are widely grown in California and mild-winter areas of the south and southeastern United States. Their lovely blooms, appearing from late fall to early spring, and their evergreen, glossy leaves make them popular shrubs for foundation plantings and landscaping in shady places.

The camellias most often used in landscapes are cultivars of a single species, Camellia japonica (the common or Japanese camellia). A few forms of C. sasanqua and hybrids with C. reticulata (the largest-flowered species) and C. saluenensis parentage are generally available as well. Most of the currently popular cultivars have been selected for differences in the size, color, or flower form.

There are about 200 species in the genus Camellia (family Theaceae). Most are native to China and Southeast Asia and areas from Japan to Burma. Some species form low, dense shrubs with small, soft leaves and delicate white to blush-pink flowers. Others have long, narrow leaves (willow-like C. salicifolia), flat to sprawling growth, or brilliant red flower buds (C. transnokoensis). A few, including C. reticulata, are tall shrubs or even small trees with huge, heavy pink blossoms and large, leathery leaves. While most have pink, white or red flowers, yellow species also exist and at least two have been brought into cultivation in recent years (C. chrysantha and C. euphlebia). Several others have fragrant flowers - either sweet as in C. lutchuesis or musky as in C. sasanqua.

The leaves of Camellia sinensis are the source of commercial green, oolong, and black tea. A high quality cooking oil, known as tea oil, is derived from the seeds of C. drupifera (previously known as C. oleifera) and certain other species.

Observations made over the past several years by Dan Charvet (camellia hybridizer and proprietor of Heartwood Nursery in Fort Bragg) and other local nursery growers suggest that many camellias are particularly well adapted to the climate and soils of the Mendocino Coast. Our mild winters allow tender, sub-tropical species such as Camellia crysantha and C. taliensis to be grown successfully, while foggy summers favor C. reticulata and others from rain forest habitats. The ‘rainforest camellias’ that have been tested appear to be easy to grow, free of serious pests and diseases, and generally perform better than popular cultivars of C. japonica and C. sasanqua, most of which prefer more summer heat than our climate offers.