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Bright Idea : The evergreen adds a splash of color to a garden and the demands it makes on the gardener are reasonable.


Gardeners looking for that special something to add a colorful embellishment to their spring landscape may want to consider camellias. Local nurserymen say they are doing a brisk business right now for these no-fuss evergreen shrubs and small trees.

"People enjoy shopping for them now so they can see the type of bloom they want, rather than looking for it in a book when it's out of (blooming) season," said Bill Dewey of Green Thumb International in Ventura.

For the gardening novice, camellias can be a confidence builder. They are neither finicky nor demanding plants, though to ensure their well-being, camellias' basic needs must be met.

"They are easy plants to manage if you just know a little bit about what you're doing," Dewey said.

Camellias, a southern Asia native, will reward you with their best blooms if protected from hot, direct sunlight and drying winds.

Two of the most predominant types are Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua . Both are well suited to Ventura County, said Scott Taylor of Green Meadow Nursery in Camarillo.

You'll find a wide variety of flowers that fall under these two categories. Depending on the variety, expect blooms ranging from large, showy versions to the more delicate.

"You're looking at variations of reds, pinks, whites and number of combinations," Dewey said. "You won't see purples and lavenders."

Generally the japonicas grow to be large shrubs or small trees, while the broad-leafed sasanquas are more squat and make good ground covers.

Both types will do well along the coast. However, for the warmer inland areas of the county, the sasanquas are more heat tolerant, Taylor said.

When choosing a spot to plant your new camellia, your first consideration should be the proper amount of shade the plant requires.

First the sasanquas. If you live inland these can be planted in east-west positions of your home, said Alice Lee of Phil Lee Nursery in Moorpark.

"They like early-morning or late-afternoon sun," Lee said. If you've chosen a sasanqua to adorn an open spot in the yard, partial shade of a tree or other covering will be required, she said. "You need protection from direct sunlight," she said. "However, along the coast you can plant them anywhere in the open because it is cooler."

One of the advantages of the sasanquas, Dewey said, is the variety's stunted height. "They can be planted, for instance, under a window where growth won't impede vision," he said.

As for japonicas, "they are the ones everyone oooos and ahhhhs over," Lee said. Though japonica varieties vary in size, they are generally large shrubs or small trees, and most bloom profusely. "You need to plant these on the north side of your house," Lee said. "That's the shady area."

"Direct sun is definitely not good for japonicas, " Taylor said. "You want filtered sun or light shade."

Taylor suggested a simple rule to follow before planting japonicas : "If you can stand in a shady space and cast a shadow, that's good. If you are not able to cast one because not enough light is coming through, then it could be too shady."

After choosing the ideal spot to sink the roots of your camellia, the next consideration is soil content.

Camellias love acid, Dewey said, and here in Ventura County you probably will need to amend the soil. "Most soils in this area tend to be alkaline, so you'll need to bring up the acid level substantially."

Adding copious amounts of peat moss is one way of increasing the acid level, Dewey said. You can also fertilize with an acid plant food or iron sulfate, he said. Check with your nurseryman for specifics.

Beware: Camellias must have good drainage. "There is an awful lot of clay in the soil in this area," Dewey said, and clay is a culprit in poor drainage. Take special precautions, especially if you live in a new construction area. The soil can be highly compacted from heavy machinery packing it tightly, Dewey said.

When watering, Lee said, keep the plant moist but not wet. "They are easy keepers once they get their feet established."

Another attraction of a camellia is the price tag. You can purchase some quite inexpensive varieties, though some hybrids can be pricey. A gallon plant will run $4 to $6, Lee said. The five-gallon can run from $9.50 to $25 depending on the variety and color combination.

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