More prudent gardeners may wonder why I ever tried growing camellias outdoors here in western Pennsylvania, since the most cold tolerant of them only are hardy to USDA zone 6a rather than our zone 5b. But I like to push the boundaries when it comes to zones, a defiance which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t!
Growing camellias in Pennsylvania is tricky at best
I first purchased a cold-hardy camellia 15 years ago, when I ordered ‘April Rose’ in the early autumn of 2004. Although I planted it in a protected location on the south side of the house and also swathed it in burlap over the winter, it still didn’t survive.
I tried again about four years later, in spring of 2008, hoping that giving a bush time to settle in and grow over the summer would improve its chances so much that I wouldn’t have to cover it. I also picked an autumn bloomer instead of a spring one—possibly ‘Autumn Spirit,’ though I don’t recall for sure—figuring that it might at least perform its first year before expiring.
I was right about that. To my delight, the little bush I planted in spring at the west end of a bank of junipers bloomed that autumn, as proved by my photo above. During the winter, however, the weight of our snows pushed the juniper beside it down on top of the camellia, breaking it off and sending it to where all the good camellias go.
Sometimes tender perennials turn out to be expensive annuals
Considering that camellias make expensive annuals, all of that should have taught me a lesson, but actually didn’t. I just concluded that spring planting did work best, but kept forgetting to order another bush then, since I tend to be occupied with seedlings of less dicey flowers during that season.
Some hardier varieties of camellias
Among the hardiest types of camellias I could have chosen from were the April series of spring-blooming cultivars, developed by Dr. Clifford Parks, which includes the 'April Dawn' pictured below. There also was the ‘Winter’s’ series of autumn or winter-blooming cultivars, developed by William Ackerman, including the 'Winter's Fire' pictured in the banner image. In fact, one camellia nursery now describes about 60 of its cultivars as being cold hardy, including a few classic varieties such as ‘Governor Mouton’ and ‘Aunt Jetty.’
Finally, this autumn, I decided I just would order ‘April Dawn’ now, keep it under lights in our cool basement over the winter, and have it already on hand to set out in spring. My research tells me that I probably shouldn’t have planted my earlier camellias in locations where they were exposed to sun on the east or west, since that can wake the bushes from dormancy too early.
Growing tips for northern camellias
In an article he wrote for the American Camellia Society, William Ackerman recommends a northern or northwestern exposure instead, but specifies that the site must be protected from wintry winds. He also advises that those of us in the colder zones should set out our bushes sometime between mid-April and late May, selecting a location with well-drained, slightly acid soil. If there is a slope to the location, he specifies that the camellia should be set at the top of it to avoid those dreaded frost pockets. Finally, he suggests that the plant be covered with microfoam or burlap during its first winter.
There is a bank of raspberry bushes to the north of our house which might possibly make a good windbreak. Or they would if my father hadn’t drowned half of them by running a sump pump hose out there after our basement flooded. (Sigh.) But I will find a good spot. After all, I have until next spring to do so!
Photos: The 'Winter’s Fire' banner is by Karl Gercens and the 'April Dawn' image by plantfreak78, both from the Dave’s Garden PlantFiles. The other photo is my own.