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Camellias Give Colorful Late Show : Flowers: The winter frost held them back, but now camellias are in robust bloom. Next weekend's show at Descanso Gardens promises to be a winner.


"Incredible!" "Outstanding!" "Fantastic!" That's what everyone is saying about the camellias this year. They seem to be blooming like never before. Bushes are covered with blossoms and the flowers are perfect. But why?

"I really don't know," said camellia expert and nurseryman Tom Nuccio, "but I'll hazard a guess. I think the big frost held them back, and now they'll all be blooming at once. It's a spectacular show."

The camellia season is two to three weeks late this year, Nuccio said. "We didn't get many flowers in January, but now they're all in bloom."

He also suspects that the lack of rain has helped. The flowers have not been beaten by the normal February rains, "but we've had good camellias in rainy years too."

Because the flowers are late this year, Nuccio said, the camellia show at Descanso Gardens next weekend will be a winner.

Typically the show comes late in the camellia season, and the best entries come from such places as Tulare and Visalia in the Central Valley, but local camellias are going to look good this year, Nuccio said.

The show, which coincides with this year's American Camellia Society convention, should be "extra special," according to one of the organizers, Elsie Bracci. There will even be camellias flown in from the South.

The show begins at 1 p.m. Saturday and continues at 9:30 Sunday morning. Descanso Gardens, at 1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada Flintridge, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults, $1.75 for seniors and 75 cents for children.

In her own garden, Bracci says, "we've got flowers everywhere." But she adds that many buds were lost during the big freeze, so "bud drop" is the leading topic of conversation in some gardens.

Nuccio's Nursery, "Growers of Rare Camellias and Azaleas Since 1935," is another good place to see camellias. Nuccio's is at 3554 Chaney Trail, off Loma Alta Drive in Altadena. Phone: (818) 794-3383).

Is this a good year to plant camellias? If you don't get carried away and plant too many, they should be easy to keep alive through this year of drought. Nuccio suggests planting smaller, gallon-can-size plants. Build a watering basin, a circular donut of soil excavated from the planting hole, to make watering easy.

You could even water these new plants with water saved from the shower while you're waiting for it to warm up. Just keep a pail near the tub. Camellias are special enough to warrant this extra attention until the rains come again.

He also suggests mulching the camellias to conserve moisture in the soil and to get established camellias through the summer.

Apply a thick organic mulch of something like leaf mold or ground bark, or Kellogg's new Xerimulch (available at nurseries). It should be at least three inches thick to do any good, but keep it away from the trunk of the flower.

This might also be the year to keep that natural leaf litter around the base of older camellias, as a mulch. Usually it is a good idea to rake it up and send it to the dump to discourage the spread of petal blight, that disfiguring fungus disease that begins with mushrooms growing from the fallen flowers. But, as Nuccio points out, "Better petal blight than no plant at all." And mulching can really help.

A trick they use at the nursery: Every warm morning, quickly spray the plants with water. Not much of this soaks into the ground, but wetting the foliage will delay deep irrigations by a few days. Without this sprinkling, a camellia may need deep soakings every five days, but with, they can go seven or eight days, even in a hot inland location.

Though you can water most camellias less this drought year, "don't let a camellia go bone dry," Nuccio cautioned. Large, 30-year-old plants may be able to stand going pretty dry.

It may seem like a good idea to thin some of the new growth so the plant uses less water, but this is a trick to be tried only in the most drought-stricken areas, such as Santa Barbara, because next year's flowers come on that new growth you are cutting off.

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