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Plant of the Week: Camellias in Arkansas | Winter hardy camellias

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Plant of the Week

Winter Hardy Camellia
Latin: Camellia oleifera, C. hiemalis and C. sasanqua

Picture of a Camellia.
The traditional camellia belt has been extended farther north since William Ackerman introduced his winter hardy hybrids.

One of life's supreme ironies must be that out of tragedy, advances are made. A hard freeze recently finished off the blooms on my winter hardy camellia that has been in flower for two months. But thanks to a meteorological fluke, camellias, long considered unsuited for gardeners living out of the camellia belt, can now be grown as far north as St. Louis.

The winter hardy camellias, mostly hybrids between Camellia oleifera, C. hiemalis and C. sasanqua, are dark evergreen shrubs reaching 6 to 10 feet in height in 10 years. Depending on the cultivar, 3-inch blooms in shades of white, pink and rose appear from late September until the first really hard freeze. Plants are sprawling and open while young but eventually form a respectable presence in the garden.

History of winter hardy camellias

The U.S. National Arboretum is situated along the eastern border of Washington, D.C., and has a climate much like that of Little Rock. In the 1950s, the arboretum began development of their Asian collection which included an extensive collection of fall and spring blooming camellias.

These beauties thrived until two devastating back-to back winters during 1977 to 1979. Not only did the Chesapeake Bay freeze solid during the 1977-78 winter, but almost all of the 900 plants in the camellia collection were killed outright or froze to the ground.

But amongst the destruction, one plant was completely unscathed - a forlorn, small, white flowered ugly duckling called Camellia oleifera. This species is widely grown in China, but not for its flowers. Instead seeds are harvested and an oil extracted for cooking and use in cosmetics.

Using this plant and another selection, Dr. William Ackerman named 'Plain Jane,' the cold-tolerant camellia hybrids were developed from over 10,000 hand crosses over the next 15 years. Initial crosses were made between 1979 and 1981 with back crosses made between 1980 and 1984. From these crosses, Ackerman raised 2.500 seedlings which were evaluated in cold areas from Pennsylvania to the mountains of North Carolina.

The fall flowering camellias - often referred to as the Frost Series Camellias - were released in 1992 and have revived interest in camellias in much of USDA zone 6b. Ackerman, who is now retired but breeding camellias, has written a book entitled Beyond the Camellia Belt, which will be released next spring. Eventually, Ackerman named and released 34 fall flowering selections that are winter hardy to at least -10 degrees.

He also released 15 spring flowering hybrids using C. japonica as the glamour parent. The plants are winter hardy to -10 degrees.

Where and how to plant camelllias in Arkansas

If you garden in the traditional camellia belt these winter hardy camellias offer little improvement over existing hybrids. But, if you live north of the traditional area - which in Arkansas roughly follows Interstate 40 across the state – they're worth trying.

Plant camellias in a fertile, organic site that can be watered during periods of summer drought. The ideal planting location is an area having morning sun and afternoon shade or filtered shade such as is created by a grove of pines. Too much sun or too much shade reduces bloom numbers. Once established, plants have good drought tolerance.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals