While the Camellia sasanqua is one of the defining flowers of the Midlands, we have adventurous ancestors to thank for bringing the plant from faraway Asian lands to grace gardens throughout South Carolina. Camellia sasanqua has a long history of cultivation in Japan. It was cultivated mainly for its leaves, which are used to make tea. From its seeds is made tea seed oil, used for lubrication and cooking. In 1869, Dutch traders began importing sasanqua specimens into Europe, and they made their way to Australia and the United States.
Most Southern gardeners are familiar with the beautiful and prolific Camellia sasanquas that thrive in so many of our old, established gardens in the Midlands. Many of these areas have groves of sasanquas that have been growing for 20 to 50 years. Sasanquas are sometimes taken for granted. They grow. They thrive. They bloom. However, if we really pay attention to the sasanquas that are growing in our gardens, they can become an amazing component to the landscape. They are such versatile shrubs and add so much to a garden’s beauty.
Sasanquas are valued in Southern gardens for their beautiful, glossy, dark-green leaves and their prolific gorgeous flowers that bloom from late October to early January. They are medium-to-large shrubs or trees that can range in height from 3 feet to 15 feet. Varieties come in many colors: simple white, such as the ever popular ‘Mine No Yuki,’ to deep red, such as ‘Yuletide,’ which blooms during Christmas holidays. Variations of color are between white and bright red with even some interesting variegated hybrids.
Sasanquas come in all shapes and sizes for every type of garden. The first point to consider when choosing a sasanqua is its mature size. A lovely sasanqua called ‘Fairy Blush’ is perfectly suited for smaller gardens because its mature height is 4 to 5 feet. Many varieties have a horizontal growth habit that makes them ideal to espalier, selectively pruning and training to achieve a desired shape. For example, ‘Shishi Gashira’ is a popular variety that has bright pink blossoms with prominent yellow stamens. Due to its spreading form, this sasanqua is also a good choice for a small or narrow garden because it can be trained in the espalier fashion.
Some unusual sasanqua varieties from Monrovia actually grow in a cascading habit. One variety in particular, ‘Marge Miller,’ grows in an unusual trailing manner, making it ideal for container gardening or planting in spots where it can cascade over a wall or fence. Fast growing and tall, sasanquas are excellent choices for a hedge because their dense, dark-green leaves provide a wonderful, living privacy “fence.” As an added bonus, it will be covered in beautiful blossoms in late fall through winter.
Most sasanqua varieties are hardy in zones 7 to 10. The Midlands is located in Zone 8, making the plant a perfect choice for our gardens. Sasanquas thrive in slightly acidic soil. Most of the gardens in Columbia and adjoining areas have acidic soils conducive to growing sasanquas, azaleas, and hydrangeas. Sasanquas do not like to grow in wet areas. They prefer healthy, organic soil that drains well after irrigation or a heavy rainstorm.
Sasanquas can be included in the landscape in many ways. Late fall to early winter is a quieter time in the garden when it comes to blooming plants. Sasanquas are the answer to that problem. Healthy, well-maintained sasanquas are literally covered with blossoms during their blooming season. When the blooms are spent, they leave a wonderful snowfall of blossoms on the ground as another interesting detail in the garden.
Plus, sasanquas are a superb plant choice for a hedge. They grow fairly quickly if planted in the right spot with the proper amount of moisture. Some varieties are particularly dense and grow into a dark green, thick hedge that can be left untrimmed or pruned into a formal shape. Sasanquas can thrive in much more sun than Camellia japonica (what most people refer to as camellias), and they can also tolerate light shade. Make certain that a sasanqua chosen for a hedge gets the right amount of sun exposure.
Buy a few additional plants to complete a hedge. Plant them in another part of the garden. If a plant in the hedge becomes sick or dies, another plant the same size and age can be transplanted into the hedge. Sasanquas are also a wonderful companion to azaleas and hydrangeas, but can tolerate more sun.
For a narrow space or a blank wall that needs a fabulous focal point, espaliered sasanquas are a great choice because they will grow flat against a wall or can be trained on a trellis or wire. Sometimes the sasanqua is sold already espaliered on a trellis or wooden form. Check with the local nurseries to see if they have these or can order them. Training a sasanqua in this way definitely takes work, and it will need to be pruned frequently during the growing season, but it is definitely worth the time and effort.
Another way to use Camellia sasanqua in the garden is to train it into standards. This means that the plant has one main trunk with a rounded top. Choose young sasanquas that have one main trunk, and prune any other branches that may appear to grow out of the trunk. Keep the top canopy rounded so that it becomes thicker and thicker. Perform the last pruning in April so that next fall season’s blooms are not cut off. This technique sounds more complicated than it is. These standard sasanquas can be used in containers, planted in a formal garden boxed with a boxwood hedge, or used as a tall hedge.
Some new hybrid sasanquas top out at 4 to 5 feet, making them good choices for foundation plants, especially on the shady, north side of a house or under the canopy of tall trees. Sasanquas thrive in the same environment as pine trees, which are abundant in this area. Pine trees are deep rooted and sasanquas are shallow rooted so they are truly a match made in gardening heaven. Avoid planting sasanquas under shallow rooted trees such as maple or cherry. The roots will have too much competition.
Sasanquas are acid-loving plants that flourish when planted in well-drained soil with plenty of added organic matter such as Erth Food or mushroom compost. Make sure that they are not planted too deeply and are not in a wet spot in the garden. The trunk base should be just above the soil line. Use 3 to 4 inches of mulch to cover any exposed roots. Sasanquas respond to fertilizer, but avoid feeding them when they are in bed or are about to flower. Wait about a month after they flower and then fertilizer with an acid-based fertilizer such as Plant-Tone. Sasanquas are wonderful container plants and are a great choice for a fall or winter combination. Another added bonus: while deer will certainly eat the tender blossoms, they are not known to eat the leaves.
Literally thousands of sasanquas are suitable for Midlands’ gardens. Here is a list of some favorites:
‘Setsugekka’ — a white blooming variety that blooms in early fall
‘Mine-No-Yuki’ (White Doves) — a popular, multi-petaled white variety with especially dark green leaves
‘Jean May’ — a creamy bloomer that flowers in mid fall
‘Bonanza’ — a deep pink variety that blooms in late fall
‘Chansonette’ — a deep purplish-pink variety that blooms in late fall
‘Kanjaro’ — gorgeous deep pink with multiple yellow stamens, blooms in early November
‘Yuletide’ — another sought-after sasanqua that bursts into prolific blooms during the Christmas holiday season with bright red flowers centered with bright yellow stamens
Chores for the November Gardener
• If you have sown winter rye, keep it cut so that it does not choke out the dormant grass beneath it.
• Transplant large shrubs or trees if you began root pruning during the previous spring.
• Redefine the planting beds if they have become messy. Dig a trench edge or install high quality metal edging.
• Add raked up leaves to the compost pile or add to a mulching machine and use for mulch around trees and shrubs.
• Keep leaves raked off dormant grass so it does not develop fungus.
• Monitor the water in birdbaths. If it freezes, refill when it thaws.
• Plant spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips.
• Force paperwhite narcissus for blooms around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
• Prune large shrubbery that has gotten out of shape or has dead branches.
• Clean and oil garden tools. If the handles of a shovel or other tool are made of wood, clean with Murphy’s Oil Soap and wipe down with a light application of olive oil when dry.
• Gather any dry limbs that have fallen, and burn in an outdoor fire pit when no wind is blowing.
• Divide any perennials that have gotten crowded.
• Pay attention to any interior plants. Monitor for insects and treat accordingly.
• Enjoy this quiet time in the garden. Purchase a new gardening book or go to the library to peruse the gardening section.
• Enjoy the blooms of Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica.