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Coming Out : A Sneak Preview of the Recently Introduced --and Quite Rare -- Japonica Camellias Includes a New, Almost-Yellow Flower

February 05, 1989|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

THESE ARE CAMELLIAS that you have never seen before--and that you won't see in very many places. Most nurseries have other fine camellias in bloom now, and respectable ca mellias also are sold at chain stores at tempt ing prices (last year, one store offered gallon-sized camellias for less than $3). Nevertheless, these new camellias, the latest efforts of hybridizers, are available only at a Southern California camellia (and azalea) specialist, the family-operated Nuccio's Nurseries in Altadena. Many of these new plants are Nuccio's own introductions, the results of an active breeding program.

February is considered the middle of the camellia-flowering--and camellia-planting--season. That's one excellent characteristic of camellias: Unlike bare-root roses and many other flowering shrubs, camellias can be planted when they are in bloom, or soon afterward, so you get to see exactly what type of flower you are planting.

The big camellia news a few years ago was the discovery of a small, yellow-flowered wild camellia in China. Now Nuccio's is selling a hybrid of the large-flowered japonica type with a touch of yellow in it. This new camellia--alas, in very short supply--was bred in Georgia and named Dahlohnega. It is a slow grower; the plant remains compact, and the flowers are "formal double" (one of six camellia flower forms).

Dahlohnega flowers usually emerge cream-colored, and only occasionally is there a pale-yellow flower. "We thought this was going to be the first yellow camellia," explains Tom Nuccio, one of the owners. However, he says, "it is definitely not just another white camellia; it is cream. It's a color break."

Another new camellia from Nuccio--this one in abundance--sounds promising for small gardens. An "under-the-window" camellia, as it's described by Nuccio, it grows only 3 or 4 feet high, so it literally will grow under a typical window without blocking the view. The foliage is dark, and the plant is slow-growing, has an upright shape and remains compact. Its name, Prima Ballerina, very much fits the delicate white flowers that are flared and ruffled like a ballerina's tutu.

Katie, a Nuccio seedling in good supply, has huge flowers measuring almost 6 inches across. Some plants have variegated flowers (red streaked with white) and leaves (streaked yellow). The plant is upright in habit and of medium size (6 feet plus).

Cherries Jubilee is one of the first dark-red camellias with white petals in the center--a striking combination. However, Nuccio warns, only about half of the flowers on any Cherries Jubilee plant will have white centers, a characteristic that can vary from year to year. A tall grower, Cherries Jubilee becomes somewhat leggy, so the top should be pruned out to encourage fuller growth.

Nuccio's Carousel is a refreshing, simple pink. One of the earliest camellias to flower--beginning in December--and longest in bloom, Carousel grows fast. The foliage is a handsome dark green.

Also in reasonable supply is the prim Spring Formal, which flowers at the latter part of the camellia season, mostly in March. This plant grows to more than 6 feet tall. Even when young, Spring Formal produces lots of buds and flowers.

Royal Velvet is an elegant dark camellia with "flowers that look up at you"--blooms do not droop or hang down. It is a tall plant, growing more than 6 feet high, and is fairly narrow in stature.

When photographed last year, Grand Marshal was named simply No. 8209, a large peony-flowered camellia with medium-green leaves. It is still in limited supply. A plant of medium height, it will not produce many flowers until it has been in the ground for a few years.

The smallest flower of the new Nuccio camellias belongs to a species of camellia that was discovered growing wild in China's Yunnan province. Camellia collectors bought up all of the Camellia yunnanensis in the fall, but plants will be available again next year. This new species has a distinct, somewhat lemony fragrance, something not found in other camellias. Nuccio claims that the scent can be detected from some distance, although his nose may be more finely attuned to this delicate scent than most. He recommends Camellia yunnanensis as a hedge because it grows to 6 feet and has small leaves and flowers similar to those of a sasanqua. He calls it "White Yuletide," comparing it to one of the more popular sasanquas that flowers in late December with Rudolph-red petals.

Camellia fanciers might be put off by the buds of this new camellia, which, according to Nuccio, are either a wonderful brown "like a Winter Nelis pear" or look "dry and about to blow away." The buds are quite brown, but they open to reveal pristine white flowers.

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