Camellia, a genus of Evergreen flowering shrubs or small trees in the Theaceae or tea family, was named by 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in honor of Georg Joseph Kamel, a 17th century Jesuit missionary and botanist who introduced many Asian plants to Europe. All species are native to temperate and tropical parts of eastern and southern Asia. Ornamental types have been grown in the gardens of China and Japan for centuries and were imported to Europe in the mid-1700’s, where they were an instant hit. According to the American Camellia Society there are several hundred camellia species, and thousands of hybrids and cultivars. The most famous member, though, is often not recognized as a camellia—the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), an agricultural crop. Others, popular in the U.S. as ornamental plants, are C. japonica (Japanese camellia) and C. sasanqua (sasanqua camellia).
Cultivars and hybrids of both of C. sinensis and C. japonica are represented on our campus. Be sure to walk over to Morrill Quad on the south side of Tydings Hall to see our main camellia collection, planted in 2009. This collection is remarkable because it features a number of selections resulting from Dr. William Ackerman’s breeding for cold tolerance at the U.S. National Arboretum that included C. oleifera in the mix. In the past, available camellias were not reliably cold hardy, and freezing temperatures at the wrong time would destroy the bloom or kill the plant. Thus, these cold-hardy introductions were welcomed more northern gardeners. The plants in the Tydings Hall collection were supplied by Cam Too Camellia Nursery in Greensboro, NC, and funding for the planting was provided by a grant from the Arbor Day Foundation made available to UMD because we are a Tree Campus USA certified campus.
The best thing about camellias in the landscape, and the main reason to grow them, is their flowers. They are large and showy (but non-fragrant) and are three to six inches across, with petal colors from white through pink to red, with yellow centers. Depending on the species and variety, they bloom from fall to early spring, when not many other plants are blooming. Their leaves are alternate, simple, and ovate, about two to five inches long with a pointy tip and fine, sharp serration. They are also thick and leathery in texture, and in color are dark and shiny green above and green below. The fruit is a dry seed capsule. Camellias grow to about 15 feet in height, with smooth light brown or grey bark.
They grow best in partial shade—with too little shade, leaves can scald, with too much, flowering is reduced. They prefer moist, acidic, well-drained soils rich in humus, and so are frequently planted in woodland settings alongside other calcifuge plants (those that do not like alkaline soil) such as rhododendrons and azaleas. They are not drought tolerant. Camellias are used as food plants by the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species.
To develop the above description, we used many sources, including Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (Champaign, Illinois: Stipes Publishing, LLC, 1998), and the following websites: Dendrology at Virginia Tech, the University of Connecticut Plant Database, Wikipedia,the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the American Camellia Society.