November is the month when the gate of winter begins to creak open, but there are still moments of vital beauty in the garden, from the burnished leaves of the witch hazel to the last flush of the rose bloom.
It wouldn’t do to have too many plants in flower — that’s just not right in a four-season world — but to enjoy one or two would be uplifting. The queen of late-autumn blossoms has to be the fall-blooming camellia. If you have a patio that still beckons on mild days, one camellia bush could brighten the whole experience.
No doubt, many people don’t know that there is such a creature, thinking of the big-boned camellias that bloom from February to April, with fat buds that open to crimson blooms. I think of their central boss of yellow stamens as their tongue sticking out at Jack Frost. They usually pay for the taunt, especially when a mild spell in late January is followed by a week of freezes.
I am drawn more to the fall-flowering version, with its greater humility and seasonal congruity. The camellia world has changed radically in the past 40 years, and it’s worth repeating the story.
For generations, the camellia was regarded as much an iconic Southern shrub as the gardenia, notably the late-winter-blooming Camellia japonica varieties but also some autumn-flowering cultivars of Camellia sasanqua. They are the kissing cousins of the shrub that gives us tea, Camellia sinensis.
This range extended comfortably to Washington, and camellias were common evergreens in gardens and public landscapes, in part because a lot of people from Southern states moved here to work for the federal government. This changed with two successive Siberian-style winters in the late 1970s, which literally altered the landscape.
The richest collection in town was at the U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast Washington. Of nearly 1,000 specimens, only a dozen japonicas survived, and only two sasanquas.
This catastrophe caused a plant breeder at the arboretum, William Ackerman, to shift his focus away from producing scented camellias (something still much needed) to producing ones that were cold-hardier. He continued the work with fewer bureaucratic distractions after he retired, at his farm, greenhouse and lab in Ashton, Md.
Ackerman, who died in 2013, introduced 50 commercial varieties — an astonishing number — to the nursery trade, many of them sasanqua-types but much tougher. Our winters reverted to milder patterns while he was doing this, though his trial crosses were put to the test in 1985 and in 1994, when most of his plants survived sub-zero temperatures.
Ackerman’s success is evident at the arboretum’s two-acre camellia garden; dozens are now flowering away in spite of the past two punishing winters. The collection holds in all approximately 200 fall and spring camellia specimens. About 40 percent of them are Ackerman hybrids, including some that bloom in early spring. The garden forms part of the arboretum’s Asian Collections.
The most recent winters did a number on the flower buds of the japonicas, though the bushes themselves were generally all right, said Carole Bordelon, curator of the collection. Of about 20 sasanqua varieties planted in 2013, all were damaged or killed. Ackerman’s hybrids survived virtually intact. Branches with winter kill were pruned out in the spring, and the shrubs have sprung back and are blooming with little or no evidence of their ordeal.
I recently joined Bordelon and members of the Camellia Society of the Potomac Valley to mark the installation of four signs, or “interpretative panels,” within the camellia woodland that together tell the story of Ackerman’s introductions. Held on a breezy, sunny afternoon, the gathering was a perfect fall moment to savor these beauties.
Developed since the 1990s, the collection reveals not only the hardiness of these hybrids but also how they develop into mature specimens. There is a great diversity of leaf size and shape, but all camellias are among the most handsome of broadleaf evergreens, with dark green and glossy foliage.
There is quite a variation in habit not just among cultivars but among the same varieties. Polar Ice has an abundance of white, anemone-like blooms with ruffled centers. One specimen at the collection is four feet tall and eight feet across. The one next to it is six feet tall and five feet across, and its character is quite different. Some are large shrubs. A specimen of Winter’s Waterlily, with gorgeous white blossoms, has grown to eight feet tall and 10 feet wide. Another has grown into a tree.
One hybrid named Winter’s Fire, with red-pink semi-double blooms and yellow stamens, is now 10 feet tall but just four feet wide. Given the somewhat random growth habit of individual plants, some deft formative pruning — best done right before spring growth — would allow an elegant specimen to develop over five or seven years.
Some are low and slow, most notably Winter’s Rose, small not just in stature but also in leaf texture and the size of the shell pink blossoms. It’s a delicate and lovely shrub — two feet high, but five feet across — and one that would be perfect to replace a gap in my garden left by a departing daphne.
Camellias prefer some shade — don’t place one in a blazing south-facing bed. Don’t plant them too deeply, but do give them enriched loamy soil, and put them in a site where they have room to grow and where a neighboring tree or hedge won’t suck the moisture out of the ground.
The Ackerman hybrids are now widely available — check with your independent garden center. Such places like to sell what’s in flower. The rub is that Ackerman counseled that here on the northern edge of what he called the Camellia Belt, new camellias are happier planted in the spring rather than the fall. If you do plant one now, you should give it a good, protective mulch going into the winter, but don’t let the material touch the trunk, and remember to lighten the blanket come spring. Ackerman also recommended a burlap screen for its first winter.
The beauty of growing camellias in Washington, he pointed out, is that they don’t get the pests and diseases that afflict them in the South. Even if a camellia is not in your garden’s future, a trip to the arboretum’s collection on a balmy autumn day would be a great way to see out the 2015 growing season.
Meanwhile, the experts have issued their winter forecast, which always seems so equivocal as to be useless. I prefer the gardener’s outlook, as captured by Bordelon: “We’ll see what this winter does, right?”
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Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.