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HARDY CAMELLIAS

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

Franklin Roosevelt was right; fear is the greatest enemy. Right now that enemy is at large. The news is full of fearful things—bombs, terrorist threats, anthrax outbreaks. Of course there is also news of heroism, valiant struggles and miraculous comebacks in baseball. By the time you read this, the Yankees may have won the World Series once again, restoring faith for at least a segment of the population. But at the moment, for many people, especially those in the Northeast, everyday things like going to work or thumbing through the mail inspire moments of anxiety.

I take refuge in my garden, digging trenches for the enormous daffodil bulbs that just arrived, putting the garden to bed gradually as if each plant is my own child, and raking up and shredding the falling leaves, so that they turn to compost quickly. Today I will plant my heart’s desire, ‘Winter’s Rose’, a hardy camellia that I acquired last week during a trip to the Philadelphia area. It is beautiful enough to make me forget everything else, at least for a few minutes. Right now it has ten pearly pink blooms that look like small roses. Snuggled in an open cardboard box by the side of the house, it awaits its entry into a protected spot in the garden.

I have coveted camellias for years. Every time I land at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the six-foot-tall shrubs seem to be blooming in the conservatory. I marvel at their dark green, glossy foliage, and the flowers that are almost too perfect to be real. I curse the fate that has made it impossible (so far) for me to have a conservatory of my own, where I could raise a camellia or two. I rail at the idea that southerners can have any number of red, pink, white and even gaily striped camellias in their very own backyards, while I am forced to look at orange azaleas. Life is not fair.

Fortunately for me, my knights in shining armor have arrived in the forms of Dr. William L. Ackerman, who is described by the American Camellia Society as a "retired U.S.D.A. plant breeder"; and Dr. Clifford Parks, a botanist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While these two gentlemen have not volunteered to build me a greenhouse, they have done the next best thing—developed and introduced a series of cold-hardy camellias.

The camellia, a member of the tea family, has been cultivated as an ornamental plant for long time. Buddhist monks in China were growing them 1,000 years ago and depicting the glorious flowers in their paintings. The Japanese have made much of them, celebrating camellias in song, story and artwork as symbols of longevity and faithfulness. I think that it is especially fitting that my white knights, Drs. Ackerman and Parks, have devoted themselves to a plant that was held in high esteem by Japanese samurai warriors.

In England the Victorians also coveted camellias, growing them in their gardens as well as in their newfangled greenhouses and conservatories. Though the evergreen shrubs have been perennial favorites in the southern United States, they waned in popularity during the first half of the twentieth century. New hybrids were introduced in the 1950’s, putting camellias in the spotlight once again.

Northeastern gardeners can thank Mother Nature for the advent of the cold-hardy camellia. According to an account written by Dr. Ackerman for The International Camellia Society’s website, the cold Washington, D.C. winters of 1977-78 and 1978-79 wrought havoc on the celebrated camellia collection at the National Arboretum. The extremely cold temperatures killed many Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua cultivars, even some that had been thought to be especially cold-tolerant. The only exception to the sad scenario was Camellia oleifera, a Chinese species that is grown in its homeland mostly for its oil-producing seeds. Camellia oleifera blooms in the fall, with an upright habit, single flowers and the glossy foliage characteristic of many camellias. Dr. Ackerman seized the opportunity and began breeding breeding the oleifera species with other species and cultivars. After much crossing, observation, back-crossing, and testing in a variety of garden environments, a number of cultivars were released to commercial growers. My ‘Winter’s Rose’ is one of them. Some of the white hybrids include ‘Polar Ice’ and ‘Snow Flurry’, which are early fall bloomers with medium-size, single or double flowers; while ‘Winter’s Hope’ and ‘Winter’s Waterlily’ are later bloomers with greater numbers of petals. ‘Winter’s Charme’, ‘Winter’s Interlude’ are both described as "lavender-pink". The former is an early bloomer, while the latter flowers in mid-fall. ‘Winter’s Star’ is described as "reddish pink", sometimes with white centers. It also blooms in mid-fall. All have upright growth habits, and become sturdy shrubs, five to seven-feet tall.

Not to be outdone, Dr. Parks has also introduced several fall-blooming cold-hardy camellias, including ‘Survivor’ and ‘Mason Farm’ with white flowers and CF-21, which is described as having "large, single white flowers with pink markings."

Lovers of deep red camellias who live in cold climates will have to wait awhile longer for fall-blooming hybrids, as cold-hardy red-flowering varieties are not yet available commercially. However, Drs. Ackerman and Park have developed ‘Fire ‘n Ice’ and ‘April Rose’, both of which are red-flowering spring-bloomers that can succeed in protected spots as far north as USDA Zone 6.

If you have been coveting camellias, contact Roslyn Nursery, 211 Burrs Lane, Dix Hills, New York, 11746, tel. (631) 643-9347 or online at www.roslynnursery.com.

And so my ‘Winter’s Rose’ awaits me. In fearful times planting an evergreen symbol of longevity with ravishing flowers just seems the right to do.

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