With these simple tips, grow your own camellias

posted in: Middleton Place

Gardeners eager to add a touch of Charleston to their backyards should look to the camellia, a low-maintenance plant with roots in the Lowcountry.

The camellia is one of Sidney Frazier’s favorite plants. The vice president of horticulture at Middleton Place for 41 years, Frazier said he loves camellias because they bring warmth and color to winter.

“I love the time of year they bloom because there’s not much else blooming,” he said. “You have red, white, pink and blue blooms and the temperature is in the 40s. What else can you find blooming that time of year?”

January and February are great times to both buy and plant camellias of your own. Frazier offers the following tips for growing success:

Camellias prefer some shade so look for an area of your yard that’s not in full sun. Although Frazier said the plants may grow in a sunny spot, they won’t fully showcase their blooms.

Conduct a soil test to ensure you have the proper pH balance for the camellias to grow. This is especially important in new neighborhoods where soil has been recently trucked in and other debris may have gotten into the soil. Take a soil sample to the local Clemson Extension office for an inexpensive test. Camellias need high acidity soil to thrive.

Make sure the soil can drain. Camellias like to be moist, but they don’t like to be soaking wet. A sandy soil is OK, but Frazier recommends adding organic matter if your yard is mostly clay.
When purchasing a camellia at a garden center, examine the plant for any disease or pests. Make sure it’s not wilted. Take home a plant that is nice and healthy, Frazier said.

Aside from their beautiful winter blooms, camellias are also relatively easy to grow, especially if gardeners start with the right conditions, Frazier said. Camellias also thrive in containers for gardeners who don’t have a lot of yard space.

“If you live in Charleston and you don’t grow camellias and azaleas, then we’re going to have to have a talk,” Frazier said. “You have to grow at least those two plants. They grow so well here in the Charleston region – they’re at home.”

Thousands of camellias have been growing at Middleton Place for decades – many of the plants are more than 220 years old. In 1786, French botanist Andrè Michaux gave the Middletons some of the first camellias to be planted in an American garden. Middleton’s collection has one of the four original Michaux plants, known as the “Reine des Fleurs” or “Queen of Flowers.”

Frazier said they grow all their plants from seedlings, including camellias that are available for purchase at Middleton’s Garden Market. “If you buy from us, you get a piece of history,” he said. “You have a baby from a plant that is 100 years old.”

Middleton Place will host guided Camellia Walks at 11 a.m. each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from Feb. 9 to March 19. Walks are free with general admission.