Go Ahead, Be a Heretic
As we’ve said, many camellia growers wouldn’t dream of giving space to plants other than camellias. But mixing and matching can be fun, a continual experiment, if you enjoy gardening.
Companions can bloom with camellias, complementing the color scheme, or they can bloom in another season. We’re talking plants here, but companions to camellias can be anything from bird baths to cherubs to statuary to gazing globes.
Companions do not need to be cozy with camellias. Even at a distance, as long as the sight line is continuous, companions and camellias can play off each other, harmonizing or contrasting.
Individual needs for sun or shade vary, so by default companions may need distance from camellias. If you have patience, a little experimentation can pay big dividends.
Possibilities for companions to camellias are as boundless as your imagination. Here are a few suggestions.
Bulbs: Daffodils provide endless color combinations with camellias because they bloom at the same time. Yellow daffs team nicely with yellow stamens on bright red blossoms.
Diminutive tete a tetes contrast strongly in form with full-bodied camellias. White varieties pair well with variegated reds and pinks.
Paradoxically, sometimes less is more. Believe it or not, daffodils can upstage camellias if they spread.
Daffodils like spring sun when they are blooming but don’t need summer sun when they are dormant, so they will do well if camellias are in light shade from a thin winter canopy or even in some winter sun.
Snowdrops, with smaller blooms, are demure companions to variegated pinks and reds.
Later spring and summer bulbs can add colorful accents to the evergreen bed but may not get enough sun to perform well.
(However, we plan to add tulips some day to our woodland camellia bed. They grow as annuals for us but newly purchased bulbs are already stocked with dormant blooms ready to wake in spring — if rodents don’t feast.)
Perennials and Ground covers: Periwinkle (vinca minor, not major), with modest blue blooms creates a thick evergreen groundcover that is weed-free when established. It has rambled into our camellia beds, so we allow it, though we still prefer our mulch of dried pine needles and leaves.
European and native gingers create inviting evergreen patches. Epimedium can spread but may look tired by fall if not in deep shade and detract from sasanqua bloom.
Solomon’s seal and its variegated cousin, along with columbine and ferns (if there is enough moisture for ferns) add interest when japonica bloom is gone, but spent fronds should be tidied before spring bloom.
Hellebores share center stage with japonicas in early spring, but their muted colors can look washed out next to large, bright, clear camellia blooms unless one partner or the other is pure white.
We mass hellebores and spring bulbs with sasanquas and beautyberry so we have two seasons of outstanding bloom: sunny ground cover in spring and camellias bloomin fall that play off purple berries that shine in dappled sunlight.
Chrysanthemums, if there is enough sun, can pair nicely with fall camellias.
Tame them by cutting back during the growing season and carefully consider colors. Pastels are easy on the eye butt hot pinks or fuschias can be a nice surprise when paired with pale camellia blooms.
Low shrubs: The sculptural quality and interesting white bloom of edgeworthia is stunning against evergreen foliage and bright blooms.
Edgeworthia likes growing conditions similar to camellias but may have to be pruned eventually if you want to keep it at five feet or less.
Deutzia nikko is a personal favorite for edging beds, does well in shade and good soil, blooms in mid-spring.
It creates mounds of foliage that erupt into sprays of tiny white flowers that brighten a shady spot. It skips around to form new plants, but in a friendly way.
Mt. Fuji spirea is an early bloomer, with small, subtly variegated leaves, so pairs well with camellias.
It does best in sun, as does ogon spirea, a profuse bloomer but with chartreuse leaves that complement dark evergreens.
Low (3 feet), sun-loving shrubs planted in front of camellias can cool soil and moderate bright sunshine.
Small-leaved evergreen azaleas like the satsukis and kurumes make a nice counterpoint to bold camellia foliage.
Their light and soil requirements are similar and later bloom times add interest to an otherwise quiet late spring camellia bed.
Large azaleas like Southern Indicas and Rutherfords can be smashing when planted in front of camellias, but they will have to be pruned occasionally to maintain a balanced height difference and avoid upstaging camellia foliage. They take pruning well and can be sculpted into loose hedges.
Tall shrubs: Tall shrubs can partner with camellias if you are planning an informal mixed bed with a variety of shapes and forms. Or they can be punctuation marks in a bed devoted to camellias.
Or they can be set apart, connected only by a sight line, which can be any distance. Or, camellias can be the punctuation marks in a bed devoted to tall, mostly spring flowering shrubs.
Bridal wreath spirea, with small leaves and wands of tiny white flowers that dissolve in a haze, is easy to grow and a wispy contrast to camellias, likes a mix of sun and shade.
It does not seem to be in favor with gardeners today, but we welcome its exuberance in early spring.
Forsythia contrasts well with red camellias, especially those with bright yellow stamens but needs space unless you vow to keep it in bounds. Choose early flowering species.
Flowering quince may be much too rangy, angular and twiggy, to be included as a partner with camellias, but it blooms with japonicas and kept in a sight line, it can add a punctuation mark.
We grouped variegated pink and white ‘Toyo nishiki’ quince with rosy ‘Berenice Boddy’ camellia and spirea ‘Mt. Fuji.’ Today it is a satisfying combination of pinks and white but in our thin pineland clay soil, despite amendments, the grouping has taken a long time to mature. The fondness of deer and rabbits for young, newly planted quince also slowed growth.
A variety of reds (‘Texas Scarlet’ et al) and whites (‘Jet Trail’ et al) are available.
Osmanthus variegated is a slow grower with big impact. If you are impatient or old, you should buy a plant with a little size. It is classy and well behaved, has hovered around five feet for years. We grow this shade-loving osmanthus for its foliage; its bloom is inconspicuous.
We planted a Florida anise among our camellias because we had one and we knew it would survive in “camellia” conditions. Not necessarily our first choice. It is handsome like camellias, though its leaves are less glossy.
Its blooms are brushy little things that come at odd times. But. . . if you brush against the plant it gives off a heavenly aroma. So perhaps one should consider aroma in this mix of companions, best placed near a path.
Nandina’s bold red berries are a nice contrast with white and especially variegated mostly white camellia blooms. This is one tough shrub. Its foliage is a lacy counterpoint to the bold leaves of camellias, and it can handle some shade.
Small trees: Camellias can grow to the height of many small trees. In fact, they are grown as trees in the Orient, so small trees planted with camellias can be redundant. Still, the white blooms of magnolia ‘Royal Star’ contrast nicely with the strong pinks, reds and whites of variegated camellias, and its form does not become overwhelming. Popular large magnolias like ‘Jane,’ for instance, can clash with camellias, though the soft pinks of ‘Leonard Messel’ complement whites and pinks.
Dogwood and redbud that bloom later can add interest to the by-now all-green beds.
And why not a watermelon crepe myrtle, a dash of hot pink near a mass of shiny dark green leaves?
Probably not, because crepe myrtles look like death in winter when camellias are at their peak. Something to think about when choosing companions that are reticent in early spring.
One final thought
We have never regretted turning so much of our garden over to camellias. Even when they are not blooming, camellias add luster to the landscape and brighten gray winter days. Combining them with a variety of plants has added to the spice of our gardening.