Are camellias a perfect southern flower? That depends if you consider Louisville the south

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

My adopted hometown for the last 25 years, Louisville, Ky., occupies a unique place in geography… and sociology… and a bunch of other ologies as well. Sometimes I feel like the only folks who consider Louisville to be part of the South are those of families that have been here for 200 years or those who’ve moved here from Michigan or Minnesota… or Manitoba. 

On the other hand, those present day Louisvillians who trace their roots to Biloxi, Baton Rouge or Belize almost always call Louisville the Midwest. After all, akin to Sarah Palin who could “just about see Russia” from her front porch, I can almost see the shores of Hoosier land from my Louisville porch rocker. 

Louisville area gardeners fall into similar categories based on their attitude toward camellias...

To southern gardeners transplanted north, camellias are the Siren’s song of the South, calling them back to their homeland. To Louisvillians transplanted from up north, camellias are those blousy and bloomy things in the wedding bouquets in the movie Steel Magnolias. We are a bit of a melting pot!

But regardless of your point of origin, Louisville has the challenging distinction of sitting in USDA cold hardiness zone 6b. That means that on average, our low temperature typically falls between 0 degrees and -5 degrees Fahrenheit. Traditionally, that means we sit just outside the limits of consistent garden success with camellias. Or at least that was the case for a long time. 

Camellias have long been a favorite of southern gardeners and lusted after by those of us from more northern climes. Most species – the number of extant species numbers between 200 and 300 depending on what taxonomist you talk to – hail from eastern and southern Asia with the highest concentration in Korea, China and Japan. And the most commonly cultivated species include C. sasanqua, C. japonica and their hybrids. Unfortunately for most of us who garden in mid latitudes, most of these selections are simply not adapted to our colder winters. 

But in the right climate, camellias are quite stunning in the garden. They form large, upright evergreen shrubs with insanely glossy foliage that provides the perfect platter for an annual presentation of drop-dead-gorgeous flowers. Pinks, whites, reds, lavenders, singles, doubles and about every combination you can think of, show up on plants during fall, late winter and spring. Southerners annually celebrate the start of camellia season. Northerners just scan through Instagram posts…

Of course the most commonly cultivated camellia of all is one you know quite well, even if you don’t know it. Camellia oleifera , the tea camellia, makes up the majority of nearly 3 million tons of tea harvested annually for later sale in dainty little mesh bags sold the world over. And while it is by far the most cold tolerant of the camellias, its flowers don’t come close to those of the more tender species. It is rarely grown in gardens.

Back in the 1980s, an enterprising fellow by the name of William Ackerman was working in the Washington DC area to produce unique camellia hybrids for gardens. He had amassed a huge collection of species and hybrids as his breeding block. And then it happened – a series of much colder than normal winters that killed or severely damaged most of his breeding collection. From the few lone and apparently super cold hardy selections, plus a few newly imported species, he set out to breed camellias specifically for improved cold tolerance. 

The resulting introductions became known affectionately as the Ackerman Hybrids and they include both fall and winter/spring blooming forms. Most have the word “Winter” in their variety names. Others indicate cold hardiness through names like ‘Polar Ice’, ‘Pink Icicle’ and ‘Frost Princess’, although I’m not entirely sure the last name was in honor of anyone specific! 

The result of these new Ackerman hybrid camellias is that those of us in USDA cold hardiness zone 6 are now tantalizingly close to being able to grow these garden gems. So here’s what we’ve experienced at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens.

Fall vs. Winter/Spring Bloomers

Spring 2022 was an absolutely stunning bloom year for our winter/spring blooming camellia collection. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of them have been in the ground since about 2007 and this was only the second year that we rated the camellia flowering as excellent. While that success interval would likely satisfy Chicago Cubs fans, I don’t think it quite cuts it in the garden. 

Because of our usually up and down temperatures in late winter, the spring bloomers have a tendency to go through the following cycle: bloom 1 bud open, bloom 1 bud frozen, bloom 2 open, bloom 2 frozen… Every once in a while we get lucky and have a midwinter break from freezing temps. And this past spring was a banner year. We had several weeks of glorious blooms.

On the other hand the fall bloomers, open right now, tend to bloom during a slightly more dependable weather pattern. While I’d never call either our spring or fall weather even or predictable, fall is definitely a bit better than spring. The result is that the fall bloomers tend to be a better bet in middle America.

Full Zone 6 Cold Hardiness

Would I really go this far? Not exactly. Are the Ackerman Hybrids better than older offerings for more northern gardens? Absolutely. But we’re right on the edge. If you have an in town, somewhat protected spot they are certainly worth a try. Out in the country in a wide open spot it’s probably better to save your money. 

Or you could try… and see… You never know. Just tell them they’re in the South and maybe that’ll help!

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on November 1, 2022.

About the Author

Blurb about Paul here.

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