The Queen of Winter Flowers: Camellias in the North State Garden, an Interview with Jerry Mendon of Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise

My camellias are blooming – the early ones lighting up corners of the garden like little Thanksgivings themselves. Pale pinks and bright whites, ruffled, pink edges on some, stunning yellow stamens on others, light fragrance on others still. Bees loll lazily in them in the cool late Autumn air. Camellia varieties will bloom from now until March, and while frost may affect the open blooms, the closed buds are protected from all but the valley’s most extreme cold snaps and will open up when the cold has passed again. The loveliness of them right now seemed to be a sign to re-run this piece on camellias with the famed Jerry Mendon of Paradise, first aired December of last year. Happy Thanksgiving in your North State Garden.

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Camellias – also known as the Queen of Winter Flowers because almost all varieties of the genus bloom from late fall through late spring – are for many gardeners synonymous with history, beauty and refinement. These flowering evergreen shrubs or small trees, idealized in Chinese and Japanese art and literature for centuries, are indigenous in much of Asia. Camellias have been treasured in Europe since first being introduced there in the mid- 1700s, and specimens were first brought to the United States in the very late 1800s. Thriving in the American Southeast and along the American West Coast, the camellia genus is comprised of many species – including Camellia sinensis, from which black and green tea is made from the young leaves – and thousands of named varieties, cultivars and hybrids. Interest in camellias reached fervent levels early in the 20th century when Western plant hunters scoured the globe for new plants to record, collect, propagate and eventually hybridize. It was at this time that individuals and botanical organizations began collections of the prized plants. Photo: As winter bloomers, camellias provide valuable nectar and food for pollinators during the colder months.

While the majority of serious camellia collectors of the period were affluent landholders, many small home gardeners also took up the love of the plant and old established plants are common in mature (sometimes overgrown) landscapes around our region. This is why Sacramento is also known as the Camellia City. Interestingly, like the Queen of the summer flowers – roses, camellias range from relatively pedestrian highway landscape plants, to rarified and highly sought after specimens. For those gardeners interested in learning more about camellias in the standard home-garden, their are many good choices somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Photo: The ever popular Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’, a single form that blooms profusely from November through January in Northern California.

Jerry Mendon, a gardening icon in the North State, has officially been a nurseryman since 1948; he founded Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise, California in 1973. These facts I have known since I interviewed Jerry and his son John for a profile of Mendon’s in March of 2008, but as with all good (and long lived) gardeners, there is so much more right below the surface. What I didn’t know was that Jerry’s first job in the horticulture industry was an after-school job working as a leaf picker for a camellia flower grower in Covina (in Los Angeles County) in 1942: “I would have to pick three perfectly shaped and colored camellia leaves to go on the round cardboard base on which sat the open camellia flower for informal corsages. More experienced pickers were in charge of picking the flowers, which is a little tricky if you don’t want to bruise the blooms. You have to grasp the calyx of the bloom – down at the very bottom of the blossom, twist and lift popping the flower off into a waiting cardboard box. long flat waxed cardboard boxes of the finished corsages were then air-mailed around the country to waiting debutantes and party-goers. But I just picked the leaves. That’s where I first learned about growing camellias, even though they only grew a few varieties for corsages: including Camellia japonica ‘Purity’ (syn. with C.j. ‘Shiragiku’ an old formal double camellia traced back to Japan 1600s), C. j. ‘Alba Plena’, and C. j. ‘Pink Perfection.’ Photo: Camellia japonica ‘C.M. Wilson’, an anenome-form in bloom in late spring.

While the genus Camellia has quite a few species, according the American Horticulture Society more than 250 species, perhaps the best known and widely grown are the Sasanquas and the Japonicas. sasanquas generally have a more open habit in their growth, have smaller more narrow and pointed leaves, have smaller but often more profuse bloom and can sometimes have nice fragrance to their flowers. Sasanquas generally bloom the earliest and are in bloom from mid-fall to now, December, in the North State; The japonicas are the standard bearers for the genus and generally have larger, more rounded leaves, a tighter growth habit, and larger more showy flowers. Between the sasanquas and the japonicas, more than 30,000 cultivars are recorded. Besides these two species, the other well known species include the higos, reticulatas as well as of course the many hybrids between the various species. Photo: Camellia japonica ‘Silver Waves’, an a large semi-double-form in bloom in late spring.

Jerry’s tips for growing your camellias include:

“All of the camellia species will thrive in the North State,” Jerry assures me. “They are easy to grow, frost hardy in large part being good to USDA zone 7/ Sunset zone 4, and if given afternoon shade, they do fine in the summer heat of the valley.” In the record cold spell of early December this year, temperatures went to 16 F in Paradise at Mendon’s and the camellias were all fine. “Open flowers and buds were damaged, but closed buds were opening up a few days later looking great,” Jerry told me. “You can buy plants in bloom from your nursery in winter, which will allow you to confirm you are getting the plant you want, and you can transplant old shrubs in winter. They’re not too finicky.”

“Plant all varieties in a well-draining mulchy soil and if possible with morning sun and some protection from afternoon sun. Photo: A limned-up tree specimen of Camellia japonica ‘Debutante’.

Keep regularly moist – not wet – when young. Mature established plants can take quite a bit less water – experiment and see, but often as little as a deep water once a week.

Provide your camellias with an acid fertilizer at the end of the blooming season: one application in March one in April, one in May. Do not feed in the summer months, and then give one more feed with a 0-10-10 type formula to help bud development and root growth before the blooming season. Photo: Camellia sasanqua ‘Showa no Sakae’, an semi-double peony-form with strong lateral growth, blooming in early winter.

Prune for shape and health directly after bloom period. If you prune too much later, you risk cutting back formed buds. If you have inherited an overgrown camellia, they will survive a hard pruning to restore the shape and vigor of the shrub.

Finally, for good hygiene – always try to pick up spent camellia blossoms from around your plants. The dead blooms are notorious for carrying a fungus that produces Camellia blossom rot or petal light, which infects the entire plant and results in blossoms turning brown from the center out before they begin to open in bloom. DO NOT compost camellia blossoms or leaves, but rather throw away in with regular garbage waste. Keep branches up off of ground and keep ground bare and clean beneath shrubs.” Photo: Camellia sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’, a vigorous grower and profuse blooms in early winter. Photo: Camellia sasanqua ‘Apple Blossom’, an single-form with a light, sweet scent and good growth, blooming in early winter and shown here espaliered up a chain-link fence.

Mendon’s carries an amazing variety of camellia species and varieties. They also carry quite a few selections grown by one of the pre-eminent camellia growers and hybridizers in the world: Nuccio’s Nurseries 3555 Chaney trail Altadena, California 91001 (626)794-3383, who actually developed some of Jerry Mendon’s favorite camellias, including Camellia japonica ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ which is a small formal white and C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’, which is a formal double, high centered and pale pink to white. Photo: Camellia japonica ‘Pink Perfection’, an rose-form-double in pale shell pink.

Photo: Camellia sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’, shown here ‘floated’ in bowl. Floating camellias is a traditional way to display the blooms, allowing the entire bloom to be viewed while not bruising the petals in displaying them.

For more information on camellias, try the following:

American Camellia Society: is based in Georgia and publishes a seasonal journal: The Camellia JOURNAL. Their website has a wealth of information on camellia care, selection and history.

I have an older reference entitled The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias written by Stirling Macoboy, but I found these recommendations on the website of the Pacific Camellia Society (the society is based out of Descanso Gardens in Flintridge): Photo: Camellia japonica ‘Debutante’, an double peony-form blooming in early winter.

“Nothing beats the paperback GARDENING WITH CAMELLIAS, by Jim Rolfe, $25 plus $3 s/h from ACS (see other sheet). This gorgeous book tells you EVERYTHING. EVERY serious gardener should own it! The CAMELLIA REVIEW, by the Southern Calif. Camellia Society. Annually $25, you also get the right to purchase the nomenclature ‘bible’ for only $12. The nomenclature ‘bible’ is the equivalent of Modern Roses.” Photo: Camellia sasanqua ‘Chansonette’, blooming in early winter. ‘Chansonette’ is sometimes now considered to be one a group of camellias classified under the species hiemalis rather than sasanqua.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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