Camellias are native to eastern and southeastern Asia. The evergreen shrubs gained popularity in the United States in the 1940s when they were planted by E. Manchester Boddy in La Canada Flintridge's Descanso Gardens in California, and the first camellia festival was held in Temple City, California, in 1945. One man, Judge Arthur Solomon was especially influential in introducing camellias to the United States. A founding father of the American Camellia Society, he traveled by boat to France in 1937 to bring back 200 camellia plants.
In Chinese tradition, camellias' perfectly symmetrical form symbolizes the expression of long-lasting devotion. The petals of the camellia symbolize the spirit of a young lady, while the calyx (which holds the blossom) symbolizes a young man entrusted to care for and protect the lady. Unlike most flowers, the calyx of the camellia falls with the petals and symbolizes perfect unity and everlasting devotion.
Camellias come in pink, red and white. Each variety has its own significance. Pink camellias symbolize longing, while red camellias symbolize passion. White camellias symbolize adoration, perfection and loveliness. While pink and red camellias most frequently symbolize romantic love, white camellias could symbolize love in many forms, including the love of a parent for a child. When given to a man, camellias represent luck.
Camellias are most commonly used as an ornamental plant, adored for lovely, long-lasting flowers, but several varieties have medicinal or practical purposes. Camellia sinensis is used to make camellia tea, while other varieties are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat asthma, heart disease and bacterial infections.
Camellias are hardy to USDA hardiness zone 8, although Northern gardeners grow them indoors in pots. More than 80 species of camellia exist. The most common species, Camellia japonica, produces flowers that resemble roses, peonies or anemones. The plants have glossy evergreen leaves and are sometimes grown as trees. Camellias' habit of winter blooming make them a welcome sight during the long, gray days of January and February. Camellia japonica blooms from October to April, while C. sasanqua blooms from September to December.
According to the American Camellia Society, camellias are easier to grow than azaleas and gardenias but have similar needs. They thrive in moist, slightly acidic soil and prefer partial shade. Prune camellias back after blooming to 1 inch above where current growth starts. Cut out any dead or diseased wood.