A Camellia Grows in Connecticut

In Georgia I took camellias for granted, but growing one in Connecticut is a big deal.

Recently, I scored a personal best in the gardening game of pushing limits; a camellia bloomed – the camellia I took from indoors last July, along with several other houseplants, and planted in the ground.

I know that’s not a big accomplishment in Georgia, but this is inland Connecticut, where I’ve never seen a camellia growing outside.

Nope, this is not one bred and sold as especially cold hardy. Years ago, I tried a couple of those supposedly cold-hardy camellias, and the Connecticut voles ate them down. Maybe other gardeners this far north have grown camellias outdoors, but this is my first time. It’s not the camellia collection I remember at Callaway Gardens, but it’s special to me.

To celebrate the occasion, I put my nose close to the bloom, inhaling the light, heady fragrance of earth and honey. If this doesn't put a smile on your face, you have a hole in your soul.

I had expected all the exiled houseplants to die, but when the camellia was still standing in January, I began thinking it just may have a chance to bloom, albeit later than its usual winter blossom time.

Like many gardeners, I have always pushed limits, trying to coax life and blooms from plants that "aren't supposed to grow" where we're gardening. When I lived in Atlanta back in the 1990s,  growing camellias was a snap, but Spanish moss was a triumph, as I was gardening 70 miles north of the moss line in Macon, coincidently the place where The American Camellia Society was founded.

But pushing the moss line pales by comparison to growing a Camellia japonica 'Bob Hope', up here in the Nutmegger State. The camellia’s hardiness ends at Zone 8 or 7, depending on your source. Well, with help from an usually warm winter and the fact that camellias can't read, this one beat the odds here in Connecticut Zone 6.

Fact is, we who push limits know they often are like rubber bands; they stretch, but if you're fortunate, they don't break. And, with global warming, alas, limits are more flexible than ever; it’s a new day, a new climate. This is troubling in many ways, to be sure. At the same time, it expands gardening horizons.

Still,  making this camellia bloom was a struggle, demonstrated by this first bloom's slightly rumpled appearance. After all, blooming this late is akin to bread staying in the oven twice as long as usual. Filled with buds since late summer-early fall, the confused camellia expected to get back indoors in the fall as it had for about five years. When it did not, the buds hung tough through snow, wind, freezes, thaws.

This week,  I stood back and looked at the camellia, planted snugly behind a tree to protect it from west winds and maybe to provide a little warmth. Stones and pieces of a broken pot surrounded the plant's base, again for warmth.

In some ways, the moment felt surreal. Wind gusts exceeding 25 miles an hour rocked the little shrub and blew branches of trees around like mad jazz patterns. Nevertheless, all the blooms and buds stood firm, swaying but confident.

This one success could lead to something big: a Connecticut camellia patch; inspired by my warm-weather-assisted success, I uncorked a camellia bonsai and planted it near its taller sibling, complete with its own tree – whose heat may warm the newcomer in winter. The bonsai had bloomed indoors during winter.

So, now, the big camellia has a lil’ bud, and I’m betting I’ll be putting more camellias in the ground to keep them company.

Lee May, retired gardening columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, blogs at LeeMaysGardeningLife.com

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