Finding/Growing Camellias in Toronto (updated on Apr 5, 17)

August 16, 2016

Finding/Growing Camellias in Toronto (updated on Apr 5, 17)

I love camellias. Pictured above is my Camellia Hiemalis Shishi Gashira in buds that hopefully will bloom in September. This post is going to be my first post about gardening. There are many qualities that I really like about camellias. They produce profuse blooms of large and beautiful flowers during cold, gloomy seasons when few other plants are in bloom. The foliage is attractive, glossy and can be used to make tea. (Camellia sinensis is the species commercially grown to produce tea leaves.) They are evergreen and remain lush in winter, when anything else would likely be a conifer. They do not demand full sun and are content to be containerized on a condo balcony. Last but not the least, many cultivars will stand short periods of freezing temperatures as low as −15 °C, and there are cold hardier ones that can tolerate temperatures as low as −25 °C.

Therefore, during the past 10 months or so, I have been trying to get my hands onto camellias. Since camellias are not reliably hardy in the GTA area, no nurseries I am aware of grow them here, and they are really hard to find. I went as far as ordering seeds online, before realizing that camellia seeds are not true to parent and the dried out ones, commonly sold online, are not viable.

Places I found that carry them either order from BC or the States. Unfortunately, no BC nurseries I know of offer retail mail order or only offer it for C. Sinensis, and US nurseries cannot ship retail orders to Canada. (I tried Nuccio’s Nurseries in California and Camellia Forest Nursery in North Carolina.) For this post, I would like to share the places that I have found that do carry camellias in or near the GTA area. Note that these places do not carry camellias year-round and only receive shipments at specific times in a year.

  • Sheridan Nurseries: I found my first camellia from Sheridan in February. They carried a very small number of them in the Mississauga locations. The cultivars that were available were Mathotiana, Laura Walker, Kramer’s Supreme, Kanjiro and Stephanie Golden. Note that these are not the cold hardy (Zone 6) cultivars.
  • Humber Nurseries: I found my second camellia from this place in March. They also only carried a small number of them. The cultivars that were available were Jury’s Yellow, April Blush and Kramer’s Supreme. April Blush, developed by Dr. Clifford Parks, was the only cold hardy (Zone 6B) cultivar available.
  • Kim’s Nature: This is the place known to carry many oriental plant species. Camellias are not exception. In July, they had about 30 plants. More details are here. I bought 5 from them, but none of the cultivars offered were cold hardy to Zone 6.

Below are two places I have spoken to that do carry camellias in spring. Because I missed their shipments of the year, I have not bought plants from them:

  • Rice Road Greenhouses and Garden Centre: This place is in Welland, ON and receives camellias from BC at around March.
  • South Coast Gardens: This place is in St. Williams, ON, opens in early May of the year and seems to be the only one that carries many cold hardy cultivars. The owner, Kevin Kavanagh, whom I spoke to briefly on the phone, appeared to have a lot of experience growing cold hardy camellias outdoors here in the region.

In the coming winter, I am going to follow up with more posts about how I am going to try to overwinter my camellias (mostly Zone 7 cultivars) outdoor with lots of protections here in Toronto. Stay tuned and wish me luck.

Update on September 30

My Stephanie Golden opened a bloom 3 days ago. Below is a picture of it. Compared to the picture above from August, the buds of my camellias have swelled quite a bit. I anticipate that my Kanjiro and Shishi Gashira will bloom in about 2–3 weeks.

Stephanie Golden September 2016
Camellia Sasanqua Stephanie Golden
September 29, 2016

Since I posted this blog entry, I have done a lot of googling to see if people with a similar climate (temperature-wise) as Toronto have had success growing camellias outdoors. I have found that people living in Connecticut and Rhode Island were able to plant the cold hardy cultivars outside (even though their garden centres suggested otherwise). This finding gave me a lot of confidence to see how my tea plants will stand the Canadian winter.

In addition, I bought myself a copy of Dr. William Ackerman’s Beyond the Camellia Belt and have learnt that some old cultivars, such as Kanjiro and Professor Charles Sargent, are actually quite cold hardy. In Ackerman’s testing, these cultivars survived well in the DC/Batimore areas for 20 years. While Toronto is colder than Maryland, I can see that reasonable protection will give my plants good chance surviving the winter here.

Instead of creating new blog posts, I will continue to update this entry to document what I do with my camellias as the winter progresses.

Update on October 29

My first Kanjiro flower has finally bloomed. I thought Shishi Gashira was going to bloom soon as well, but it appears that the buds on Shishi still remain fairly small, compared to Kanjiro’s. This is not out of ordinary, though, as Shishi does typically bloom later amongst fall blooming camellias. Both Prof Sargent and Laura Walker have fairly sizable buds now and they typically bloom around the holidays season. I am hoping that the weather will remain warm enough for the flowers to open successfully. Fingers crossed.

I have started to work on winter protection for camellias. I am going to move all my camellias to my condo balcony, where they will receive shelter from snow and early morning sun. I have also hung up horticultural fleeces to block the wind and direct afternoon sun. For the plants themselves, I am going to wrap the containers in cardboard boxes that I picked up for free from Costco. I will post a picture once I am done with all of this work.

Kanjiro October 2016
Camellia Hiemalis Kanjiro
October 29, 2016

Update on November 11

After a long wait, my Shishi Gashira has finally opened a bloom.

Shishi Gashira November 2016
Camellia Hiemalis Shishi Gashira
November 11, 2016

Update on November 13

Yesterday was a happy day. Shishi Gashira opened her second flower, and I found a Yuletide at the Mississauga/Etobicoke location of Sheridan Nurseries. They also had a Shishi Gashira available. When asked if they were getting more camellia plants, the supervisor there said she ordered 6 but only got 2, but more might be on the way. When I asked if other Sheridan locations would carry camellias, she said she doubted it, because she was more “adventurous” when it came to ordering plants. When I called the Southdown location, the staff indeed said they did not carry camellias since they wouldn’t grow here. Though, I did find a small number of these plants at that location earlier this year.

On the other hand, I also called Humber Nurseries, and they said they would have camellias available in early December. I have a lot of pink camellias now, and I would like to add more of them in different colours. Speaking of colour, this Yuletide I found yesterday is, strangely, not in the Christmas red commonly described for the cultivar. The flower form, leaf size and growth habit all match Yuletide, but the colour is more like faded pink. Regardless, I’m very delighted to have the addition.

Yuletide November 2016
Camellia Vernalis Yuletide
November 12, 2016

Update on November 25

A few days ago the temperature dropped to −2 °C, and the flowering of the sasanquas slowed, although the ones already opened were not affected by the cold. Today, the temperature has warmed up to 8 °C, and I can see my sasanquas are back in the business again. Stephanie Golden, which put out a single bloom in September and never did it again, has several big, fat buds ready to open. Shishi Gashira and Kanjiro, which have been blooming since the beginning of November, are ready to open a few more, as well. My Yuletide that came with pink flowers opened a red flower on a different branch last week and is ready to open another red one. These flowers have made me so happy and I spend so much time on my balcony every day.

The japonicas, on the other hand, have been very quiet. The early blooming ones, Prof Sargent and Laura Walker, although have really fat buds, don’t look like they will bloom any time soon. If they don’t bloom in December, then I suppose I will need to wait until March when days warm up.

To see how feasible it really is to keep camellias here in Toronto, I have been doing quite a bit of research. I have been rereading Dr. Ackerman’s book, forum posts and blog articles. I look for success or failure stories about keeping camellias in the colder regions in the North America and verify their claims against historical climate data. Many of those who suggest that camellias grow fine in their regions, such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania or Knoxville, Tennessee, usually won’t have lowest winter temperatures less than or too far away from −15 °C.

Stories from one user, billriz6b, on the GardenWeb have been particularly helpful to me. Since he lives in Providence, Rhode Island, his camellias have been exposed to low winter temperatures similar to what Toronto has. Although, based on historical climate data, Providence is technically slightly warmer than Toronto, stories, such as this and this about camellia damages from unusually low winter temperatures, are nonetheless helpful in determining the lower limits of temperatures that the camellias of cold hardy cultivars can truly withstand.

Based on Bill’s experiences, the camellias hardy to Zone 6B, left unprotected, will likely suffer some damages when the temperature drops below −20 °C. If parts of a plant can be covered in snow, then the insulated areas will be fine. On the other hand, those hardy to Zone 6A did much better at those temperatures. This means that, in order to grow camellias in Toronto, gardeners should stick to the varieties hardy to Zone 6A or be prepared to provide some winter protections.

I wasn’t expecting growing these southern darlings to be easy, or else more people would have been doing it here. My plan for the next few years is therefore to see what level of winter protection can reliably help them survive our frigid winters and will report my findings here on my blog.

Update on February 23, 2017

Today, the temperature soared to almost 20 °C, so I thought it would be a good idea to check on how my plants have been doing and to clean up the fallen leaves. As well, I thought I should update this post, something I have not done for 3 months.

Since the last update, I have been watering my plants weekly. If the temperature was below zero and the soil was frozen, then I would wait until it got above freezing before watering again. Since all my plants were in containers, I put them on small buckets/pedestals to allow for proper drainage. I also wrapped each pot with garden fleece and let the containers tightly cuddle together, so the soil temperature would fluctuate as little as possible.

Thanks to the exceptionally mild winter we had, most of my plants appeared to have survived, so far. Normally, the temperature can drop below −20 °C, but this year the coldest nights only reached −12 °C. Aside from the camellias, my normal, non-cold-hardy, Zone 7 gardenias appeared to have made it. The only camellias that appeared to be dead were the ones I bought in December, as there was not enough time for them to harden for the climate. I also bought a 5′ tall Kramer’s Supreme in December, that, while survived, had a number of leaves turned brown and dropped.

Aside from those ones bought too late in the season that suffered, the only other camellia cultivars that had significant foliage losses were Prof Sargent and Laura Walker. Though, they did not start dropping leaves until I moved them to a much more sheltered and warmer corner on the balcony in early January. Perhaps they preferred to stay in the cold. I will try that the next winter.

Cultivars that did really well were April Blush (rated Zone 6b, after all), Royal Velvet, Kanjiro, Shishi Gashira and Stephanie Golden. All the sasanquas, Kanjiro, Shishi and Stephanie bloomed during warm spells in early January. Though, none of their unopened buds survived past January. On the other hand, all the japonicas bought before the winter have their buds looking green and healthy. We will see if they are able to bloom successfully in the coming months.

Cultivars that did ok were Early Autumn, Yuletide and C. Sinensis Small Leaf Tea. Yuletide was bought in late November. The branches that had significant cold damage also showed visible fertilizer burn before the winter. Kramer’s Supreme also had the same problem: the branches that already suffered from over-fertilization had the most trouble when it got really cold. Early Autumn did drop some leaves, but not nearly as many as Prof Sargent or Laura Walker. Small Leaf Tea actually did surprisingly well, considering that it was a sinensis and it was also bought in December. It did not drop a lot of leaves, but a small number of leaves looked dried and dead.

All in all, I am quite pleased that most of my plants have made it to this far. I will update this post again when spring officially comes.

Update on April 5, 2017

Early Autumn April 2017
Camellia Japonica Early Autumn
April 5, 2017

So, spring has arrived. My Early Autumn has opened up a flower. Like I mentioned in the last update, most of my camellias survived. The two japonicas, Prof Sargent and Laura Walker, that struggled probably did because of a nearby exhaust outlet. It is possible that the combination of hot, dry and cold, dry air blowing on them caused the leaves to desiccate. Since they have survived, I will put them elsewhere the next winter.

On the other hand, I had 3 camellias that stayed indoors during this winter. Despite what people say that overwintering inside the house is not ideal for camellias, mine that did flowered normally and are leafing out now. I had my thermostat set to 22 ºC and had a humidifier pumping out humid air 24/7. (Not just for the camellias, I could use some humidity, too!) I will keep more camellias inside the next winter and see if I get more flowers.

This is likely my last update on this post, but I will create a new post when winter 17/18 is here. Since I like camellias a lot, I will continue to experiment with them to see how they can be grown here in the north. I would like to conclude this post with the things I found that worked well for me:

  • I use peat moss and pine bark mini nuggets as my growing medium. I also add a bit of sand for drainage, and it makes the otherwise lightweight peat/bark mix heavier and more stable.
  • I put a 1-inch layer of pine bark mini nuggets as mulch at the top of soil to retain moisture and prevent weed growth.
  • I water regularly and make sure the soil never dries out. All the containers I use have drainage holes and will drain excessive water either to the ground or to the saucer.
  • I try to use large containers, and most of my camellias are in a 5-gallon container. Ones that aren’t will be repotted soon.
  • I feed my camellias with organic fertilizers, such as coffee ground, alfalfa meal, fish bone meal, azomite, kelp meal, etc. I feed lightly twice a year, in early spring (April) and in late summer (August). In late summer, I only use fertilizers low in Nitrogen.
  • Camellias bought from a nursery late in the fall or during winter won’t be hardened enough to survive the cold outdoors. I have learned this lesson the hard way: ones I bought late in the season either died or got damaged significantly outside. They should stay indoors until the next spring.
  • For my balcony, I used clear vinyl sheets to create a windbreak to prevent cold winter wind from desiccating the camellias. I also wrapped all the pots with horticultural fleeces and let them cuddle closely together, so the pots won’t freeze too much. Since the last winter was rather mild, I hesitate to say that this will allow camellias to survive the usual −20 °C toronto winter, but we will see in the coming years.

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