A Rendezvous with Exotic Beauty: Camellia Confessions on a Winter’s Day

Camellia japonica ‘Tama-no-ura’ in the Camellia Corridor at Lyman Conservatory. My House Favorite.

Camellias are not cold hardy, and although there are a few exceptions (recent introductions claim survivos in USDA zone 6), they are considered zone 7-9 plants. Perhaps that is why these alluring beauties haunt my dreams. Why do we long for that which we can not have? Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love to garden in New England, but if I could grow Japanese Camellias, I certainly would! In meantime, there’s always the Camellia Cooridor at Lyman Conservatory, Smith College Botanic Garden.

And so —on a bitter, sub-zero, January day— I bundle myself up and head out for a steamy, glasshouse rendezvous. Camellias come into bloom anytime from mid to late winter (December to March) when grown in glasshouses, or outdoors in warmer climates. At Lyman Conservatory, peak flowering in the Camellia Cooridor begins in January. Opening the side door and slipping inside is like catching the sweet breath of springtime . . .

Powdery, flushed & breathless. Dressed for a glasshouse rendezvous. Camellia x ‘Ballet in Pink’ at Lyman Conservatory

Camellia japonica ‘Monjisu’ in the Camellia Corridor at Smith College’s Lyman Conservatory.

Camellia japonica ‘Rose Pink’, Showing Off My Favorite Form. 

The Camellia is native to Asia. A sign at Smith College Botanic Garden tells me that there are more than 250 wild species growing in sub-tropical regions of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Whether grown indoors or out, Camellia japonica (and popular hybrids), prefer semi-shaded positions and well-drained but rich, moist, acidic (pH 5.6-6.5), soil. When grown in pots, Camellias enjoy the same ambient temperature as many citrus trees (a perfect, cool glasshouse companion), with a maximum indoor range around 55F. That’s a little cool for my house, but it’s perfect for a orangerie. Shall we build one? I confess a glasshouse is a long-standing fantasy but it does seem rather extravagant. Perhaps someday. But for now the winter flowering Camellias are one of many great excuses to spend a day in my favorite conservatory. Thank you for a lifetime of pleasure, Smith College.

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