Jan 23, 2014

After a recent extended Arctic wave settled over the Napa Valley, turning plants to slime and sending heating bills through the roof, our usual green landscape was left cloaked in ice. Not many plants escaped damage.

In my yard, a few violas and the camellias, with their thick, shiny green leaves, grew as usual, as if there had been no change from our usual moderate winter weather. Years ago, during a long summer drought, I noticed the same thing. All around my property, plants were dying of thirst while the camellias remained unaffected.

This year, the sasanqua camellia ‘White Doves’ warmed my heart with masses of double blooms while my dog’s water dish was solid ice. These are tough plants.

They have withstood all kinds of extreme weather for centuries and revealed their versatility over time. Shoots and leaves have been used for teas, while seeds and nuts were used to make cosmetics and oils for cooking and heating.

Many of the original small, white species camellias were fragrant. The species C. lutchuensis is mainly used for hybridizing to create more fragrant camellias.

Camellias have five different flower forms: single petals, semi-double, formal double, anemone and peony form. They may be tough plants, but many of the petals appear to be as fragile as the finest china.

Because the Napa Valley Camellia Society’s annual show is early this year, on February1, I was concerned about the status of available flowers. I called avid camellia grower, Peggy Aaron, and mentioned that my camellias were noticeably smaller than usual. She said that some of hers were also smaller but felt confident that there would be an abundance of beautiful blooms for the show.

According to the commercial camellia growers at Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altadena, a mature flower is 90 percent water. So when a plant dries out, the result may be undersized blooms and sometimes bud drop. Our prolonged freezing temperatures in December produced a drying effect that caused the puny flowers.

But I also have more blossoms on my bushesthis year and they are remaining longer than usual. That’s a good thing. These plants want to bloom no matter what the weather gives us.

In addition to coming in a variety of forms and colors, camellias may be low, medium or tall, upright or arching. Some are useful for informal hedges; others make good ground covers or small trees. They may provide focal points in containers ora handsome espalier against a fence. Valued for their tiny leaves, the species and sasanqua types show well in the art of bonsai.

I usually look for camellias with unusual petals or fragrance that attracts honeybees. If you use camellias as an informal hedge, note that pruning with electric shears will displace birds’ nests, cut out much of the flowering and expose old wood. Prune lightly to shape only about every five years.

Camellias have few needs. Digging around them disturbs tiny feeder roots. Give them a mulch of peat moss or leaf mold, light-weight materials that allow air to reach and protect the roots.

Camellias appreciate fertilizer as soon as there are signs of growth. But if you forget to fertilize, no problem. Camellias don’t like to be over fed. Use a fertilizer formulated for camellias and follow the directions on the container.

Camellia blight is more prevalent during wet winters. This fungal disease is caused by spores released by splashing water. Remove damaged flowers and keep the ground beneath the plant clean. In general, camellias like well-drained, slightly acid soil and protection from hot afternoon sun. They make excellent understory plants and grow well beneath redwood trees.

The annual Napa Valley Camellia Society show is a perfect place to learn more about camellias. The growers are more than happy to help you choose the right plants for your garden, and there will be plants for sale at nominal prices. If you choose wisely, you will have flowers for years to come that will bloom from October until April.

I’ll see you on Saturday, February 1, at the Napa Senior Center. Leave those winter doldrums at home and enjoy all the magnificent color. Admission is free and you may find a treasure for your garden.

Workshop: Napa County Master Gardeners will host a workshop on “Success with Veggies All Year Long,” on Sunday, February 2, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington Street, Yountville. Learn how to keep your garden soil healthy and productive, find out which vegetables to plant in what months, and be introduced to many reliable resources. To register, call the Parks & Recreation Department at 707-944-8712 or visit their web site.

Napa County Master Gardeners welcome the public to visit their demonstration garden at Connolly Ranch on Thursdays, from 10:00 a.m. until noon, except the last Thursday of the month. Connolly Ranch is at 3141 Browns Valley Road at Thompson Avenue in Napa. Enter on Thompson Avenue.


Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.