I love camellias, plants that always seems so southern and exotic. The broadleafed evergreens bloom at outrageous times, from winter to spring, their three-inch- or four-inch-wide flowers of red, white or pink so different from most northern plants in winter.

In the United States, there is a "Camellia Belt" where these flowers are hardiest. It wraps around the southern part of the country from the Carolinas to California. Washington is outside this area, but local gardeners can still succeed with this almost-tropical plant. Many of the camellias bred at the U.S. National Arboretum on New York Avenue NE are hardy to this region.

An example is the multi-trunked tea-oil camellia (Camellia oleifera) that has been growing at the Arboretum since 1948. It is probably the largest specimen of its kind in this country--24 feet high and 30 feet wide, with multiple trunks up to seven inches thick. In the past 20 years many hardy species have been bred from it by geneticist William Ackerman.

A research horticulturist since 1952, Ackerman is one of the world's preeminent camellia breeders. I have felt comfortable specifying the use of camellias in this region on the basis of his work and through the urging of his good friend, Jerry Hill. Ackerman says of the 82-year-old Hill, "He has been into camellias longer than me."

Hill is owner of Hill's Nursery and Camellia Garden at 1722 N. Glebe Rd. in Arlington, where I found half a dozen fall-blooming frost princess camellias for some gardens we designed this summer. He, his wife Helen and son Linden run the operation. Helen Hill propagates most of the camellias. In the past 40 years, she has developed one of the largest collections of seed-grown, spring-blooming Japanese camellias in existence.

The frost princess camellias I found are collectibles, bred in 1969. They were in the first group of camellias made by Ackerman and proved hardy to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The ones I bought were grown here, not shipped in from the Camellia Belt.

What prompted this column was a phone call from a client who told me how excited he was to see the first blooms on his frost princess camellias. Each plant produced 30 to 40 flower buds this season, and the show is just starting. They will bloom into December or January, depending on how often the weather freezes and thaws.

Several buds will open at a time. Those that were in flower will fade. The buds will bloom even after freezing. Ackerman said they can continue to do this into January. Fall bloomers are usually hybrids of the sasanqua types of camellias (Camellia sasanqua).

Spring bloomers, commonly called Japanese camellias (Camellia japonica), such as those in Helen Hill's seed-grown collection, wait until late February to open, and then do their off-and-on flowering until the end of April. So, technically, spring blooming means late winter in our area.

The hardiest Ackerman hybrids are fall bloomers, but you can find both. Some of Ackerman's recommendations are listed below. He also points out that, even though you're seeing them in bloom now, the best time to plant them is in May and June.

Fall Blooming

(Hardy to Minus 15 Degrees Fahrenheit)

* Ashton's Pride: This grows to nine feet high with a 10- to 12-foot spread, making it a candidate for starting a camellia forest. It has pale pink single flowers, narrow foliage and a rounded habit.

* Winter's Beauty: The late-flowering habit is an attention-getting trait of this seven-foot-high by five-foot-wide shrub. It gets noticed when its lavender-pink, peony-shaped blossoms open in winter.

* Winter's Interlude: Anemone-shaped flowers are a lavender pink on this hardy camellia. It will grow to eight feet and spread to nine feet.

* Winter's Rose: This compact, slow-growing, tough shrub with a double pink flower grows to six feet high and wide in 20 to 25 years. It has smaller leaves, giving it a finer texture than the others.

* Winter's Waterlily: This is a white flowering member of the group. It stays low, at six feet, and spreads to eight feet wide. After opening, the double flower develops a pink hue.

Spring Blooming

(Hardy to Minus 10 Degrees Fahrenheit)

* Betty Sette: This large formal double pink flower is a noticeable element against the deep green foliage. It was introduced several years ago and named after the Camellia Society of Potomac Valley's recording secretary. It gets seven feet tall by five feet wide.

* Fire n' Ice: The red semi-double flowers stand out in winter, especially against snow on the ground. It grows to six feet high by five feet wide.

* Ice Follies: It has a large, pink bloom with a semi-double flower. The shrub grows about seven feet tall by six feet wide.

* Jerry Hill: It has a medium pink, double flower. Named after the Arlington nurseryman, it grows to eight feet tall by seven feet wide. Although it's unavailable at this time, look for it in the future, and you can see it in the camellia garden at Bon Air Park, 850 N. Lexington St., Arlington.

Look for the William Ackerman Camellia Hybrids in spring at Behnke's two locations in Maryland (301-937-1100), Betty's Azalea Ranch in Fairfax (703-830-8687) and Hill's Nursery and Camellia Garden in Arlington (703-527-3472).

Hill recommends planting camellias with lots of compost in a well-drained site. Drainage is crucial to their existence, more so than fertilizer. If you wish to fertilize, Hollytone is the perfect balanced nutrient. In the first years of establishment, a water-soluble fertilizer for acid-loving plants, like Miracid, provides a good boost. Don't apply when planting.

All plants need sun to photosynthesize and flower. Camellias just need protection from hot drying sun and wind. Partial sun is best, with mostly northern exposure. Desiccation is the main threat to hardiness. For a high degree of protection from drying, stake burlap or a commercial plant protector around these plants in winter.

For more information contact the American Camellia Society, 100 Massee Lane, Fort Valley, Ga. 31030 (912-967-2358) or www.peach.public.lib.ga.us/ACS/intro.htm.

Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is lernscap@erols.com