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Christmas camellias perfect for Sacramento

'Yuletide' brightens holidays, feeds hummingbirds with December blooms

'Yuletide' is an appropriate name for this red  sasanqua camellia.

'Yuletide' is an appropriate name for this red sasanqua camellia. Debbie Arrington

What’s the perfect flower for Sacramento’s holiday season? My vote goes to the Christmas camellia.

After all, we are the Camellia City and Camellia sasanqua dependably blooms every December – and then some. These camellias also are tough, drought-tolerant and can thrive for decades with little care.

With distinct golden centers, these camellias started opening locally in October. Due to mostly mild weather conditions, they’ve stuck around for more than six weeks and still look good for the holidays.

As a Christmas cut flower, sasanqua camellias are attractive in a vase or bowl. They’re also intensely fragrant and brighten up a room with their scent and color. As a potted plant, they make a thoughtful garden gift.

My three Christmas camellia bushes are at least 40 years old; they were planted when our home was built in 1980 and still going strong. They’re all 'Yuletide,' a variety first introduced by Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altadena in 1963. With distinctive large single red blooms, Yuletide was registered with the American Camellia Society.

My 8-foot Yuletide bushes right now are covered with dozens of big red blooms, each 4 to 5 inches across. The flowers almost glow against their shiny green foliage – a natural holiday combination.

In the early winter garden, Christmas camellias make the greatest impact. Besides looking fantastic, they support beneficial wildlife. Those pretty flowers feed bees and hummingbirds when few other flowers are available. This month, I’ve enjoyed watching the hummers feast on my Yuletides.

Sasanqua camellias bloom two to three months before their close cousins, japonica camellias, which start appearing in February. With natural hardiness, Christmas camellias can thrive in spots where japonicas struggle. They can tolerate drought conditions and colder temperatures. Although they prefer filtered shade or dappled sunlight, Christmas camellias also can take more full sun than japonicas.

Cold, hard rain will bring an end to Christmas camellia season, usually in early January. That’s when they’ll start dropping their flowers in bunches. Pick up and dispose of those fallen flowers to help prevent petal blight, a fungal disease that turns camellia petals prematurely brown. Otherwise, those spores will hang around and infect the japonica camellias as they open.

As landscape plants, Christmas camellias are long-lived (often several decades) and easy care. After flowering, they need little if any pruning; just remove dead wood and gently shape if necessary.

Then, feed sasanqua bushes with an acid-type fertilizer formulated for camellias, which prefer slightly acid soils.

But don’t feed your japonica camellias until after they finish blooming in March. Feeding while camellias are in bloom (or about to bloom) may cause them to drop unopened buds.

Thinking about a gift plant? Christmas camellias can be found in bloom now in local nurseries. These bushes can be transplanted after they finish bloom and will continue to bring smiles for many years to come.

For more about growing camellias locally:

More on camellias:

Sacramento's oldest camellia gets a new honor

What to do about brown camellias


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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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