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An Early Show of Colors

January 26, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is the gardening editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

Some camellias bloom earlier than others--you've probably observed that in your own garden or elsewhere. The peak for most comes some time in late February or March, but already there are camellias in bloom, and not just a few. Pictured on these pages are the varieties that are in full flower right now, in the middle of winter. They're the early camellias, which may have begun blooming back in December but look their best this time of year.

The so-called sasanqua camellias flower even earlier, but their blooms are generally smaller and decidedly less fancy, and the bushes are a trifle stiff and sticklike. The camellias shown here are all japonica types, with full-blown, full-size flowers on neat, dense bushes. Only the japonicas are capable of such variation--from the unusual tulip-shaped flowers of 'Tulip Time' to the complex geometry of 'Donnan's Dream.' In between are all sorts of camellia forms--semi-doubles, anemone or peony forms, variegated and picotees.

It is the nature of early camellias to begin flowering a month or more before they reach their peak--slowly opening blooms that tend to last, and so making a more consistent showing in the garden. In comparison, mid-season camellias (most are classified as such) open all at once, and though they make more of a splash, it is short-lived. The early varieties of camellias are often the prettiest and most per fect because they open when the weather is cool and mild. That is why most camellia shows are held in February.

Because these camellias bloom in the beginning of the year, they don't compete for attention with other flowering plants in your garden. They are at their best just before the fall-planted spring flowers explode into color and bloom well before any perennials do. That makes them ideal candidates for the backs of flower borders, where they can stand in the property-line shade of shrubs, trees or structures.

For these purposes, their colors couldn't be more right. The soft pinks and whites are perfect for the season and complement many spring flowers as they start to bloom. Although it would take some derring-do to mix camellias with the few flowers that are orange or yellow, imagine them behind the tall spikes of larkspur or Canterbury bells, bachelor's buttons, sweet peas, nierembergia, dianthus, phlox, scabiosa, stock or Sweet William. By the time your summer garden is in bloom, camellia bushes are simply a glossy, deep green background for that season's warmer colors.

Camellias like shade, though not too much of it. They are one of the few shrubs that thrive in a winter-shade, summer-sun situation. The north side of most houses would be bare if it weren't for camellias. There, they can be a background for primroses or cinerarias, or they can stand alone with ferns and other shady plants at their feet.

Some of the early camellias shown here are available at most nurseries. A few are real old-timers that you may recognize, including the formal 'Rosea Plena.' Others can be found only in Altadena at Nuccio's Nurseries, camellia specialists. A nice thing about camellias is that they should be planted during their season of bloom, so if you buy them now you see what you are getting.

Prepare the soil thoroughly by digging in quantities of organic matter. Camellias do most of their growing immediately after they flower, so be sure to add some fertilizer to the bottom of the planting hole. Also, take care to plant the camellia bush a bit high so that the top of the root ball sits about an inch above the soil level. Camellias are tough plants, but if their crowns become buried, which is likely to happen if the soil settles, they will perish. The regimen then calls for fertilizing once a month, every month, from just after flowering until early fall, when the buds are formed for the next season's blooms.

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