4. Camellias Become Collateral Storm Damage

The Gang of Eight Takes a Big Hit

We didn’t worry about the camellias after Hurricane Isabel struck eastern North Carolina on September 18, 2003 with high winds, tornadoes, and heavy rain. The camellias, now coming of age, glowing with the blush of debutantes, weathered the storm with barely a broken twig.

Survivors of the Storm, But. . .

Miraculously, camellias and many other low shrubs survived the destruction

They held their heads up in wicked breezes. They beamed in the face of destruction. Of course they would survive and bloom.

A year or so after the storm, they had become collateral damage.

Why? Had we understood what was happening we might have rescued them.

But it took time to put the clues together.

A survivor in the midst of chaos, C. sasanqua ‘Yuletide.’ Though slow to begin blooming when first planted, it is a brilliant, profuse bloomer during the holidays

So many trees had caved to the wind, we were overwhelmed with sorting tangles and could not focus on plants that seemed to be taking care of themselves.

We ignored them.

In an instant the garden had changed from an inviting shady nook to a hot sahara.

That, we soon learned, was more an annoyance to us than to the plants. The root cause of the destruction lay underground.

A favorite japonica camellia planted early on, ‘Berenice Boddy,’ managed to survive

We had almost forgotten we lived in a swamp. Before the storm, large pine trees had sucked up rainwater through their roots. In fact, our soil often seemed positively dry in summer.

But the pines had fallen and their roots were gone. Millions of straws sucking up water were missing. Our plants suddenly needed boots, but there were no boots around.

The camellias stopped growing. Twigs died back. Leaves looked gray and wilted.

Not a pretty picture of suffering strawberry plant roots taken by Luisa Santamaria. They’re probably mushy, too

Root rot Attacks 

It’s a funny thing about root rot. The leaves wilt and you think the plant needs water, so you water it, and the leaves don’t stop wilting, and maybe they turn brown or yellow, so you put more water on the plant, thinking you are doing a good deed.

But your good deeds are backfiring. The plant does not perk up. What’s going on?

The plant is drowning. Roots are begging not for water but for air. What confounds things is that wet conditions can exist indefinitely without severely damaging a plant, so symptoms are often ignored.

C. japonica ‘Simeon’ was planted early on in a drier area and survived, though it looked like a sickly, gangly kid for years until it took off to great heights and now provides air layers for new plants

But when soil temperatures and humidity and moisture combine to create the perfect storm, root rot fungus revs up and attacks.

Its spores fly in with the wind or hitch rides on insects and garden tools and transplants. It can fiddle for years, then strike up a tune when you least expect it.

It can wreak havoc in a bed with lightning speed, or it can take a long time, even years, and you never quite understand what’s ailing a plant.

Cutting back to undamaged growth is only cosmetic. The plant looks healthy for a while until the loss of functioning roots catches up to top growth.

C. sasanqua ‘Appleblossom’, which we love for its delicate flowers,  is another survivor that had been planted in dryish soil

Biting the bullet and pulling out the plant and throwing it in the trash (not the compost pile) is the only safe course left.

Usually, by the time we can bear to pull it, a plant with root rot has already lost most of its roots. What’s left is dead and brown.

Sterilizing the soil or using fungicides is a little like holding back the ocean with a finger in a crumbling dike. Not worth the time, trouble or expense, or the exposure to chemicals.

Replacing soil in a bed is a gargantuan task and there’s no guarantee. Adding compost will loosen the soil and adds nutrients. Digging in amendments like vermiculite and perlite will help aerate the soil.

Diagram from American Rhododendron Society on how to plant in heavy soil. Note plant sits on solid soil at bottom of hole to prevent sinking

Replanting with resistant plants will succeed, but only if you know what plants are resistant. Worth a try.

We’ve learned from experience what plants might work, but we still do a lot of hoping and we try to be vigilant about observing signs of ill health.

All replacements  should be planted high in shallow holes with rough, fluted sides  (see Siting and Planting for pictures of hand-dug hole).

Soil should be mounded up to the base of the plant so water runs away and not toward the plant. This method of planting eliminates the dreaded “soup-bowl” sauration around a plant, a surefire sentence to root rot. Mulch should be kept away from stems.

The loner, C. sasanqua ‘Shoa no Sakae’

What We Did Then

Today we tell the world what we should have done. Back then we didn’t know that anything even needed doing, except watering, which we did without connecting the too-wet soil in the bed with any problems.

Early on we should have pulled the camellias and potted them for replanting. We were so distracted by the colossal damage above ground, we paid no attention to the colossal changes underground.

Sasanqua ‘Shoa no Sakae’ blooms spectacularly for a solid two months in late fall

By the time we figured out what was going on, the camellias were beyond hope. Pittosporum nearby were also victims.

One by one we pulled them. The native holly still stood sentinel, though its sad-looking leaves mourned the loss of its neighbor, the pine that had kindly given shade and moderated moisture.

One lone camellia showed promise, so we gave it a second chance.

Privately we thought it would be gone the following year, fading in direct summer sun or drowning in heavy rains.

We limbed it up into a low, spreading tree that creates nice shade for hosta in summer that, in a turn of events we did not expect, provide salad greens for deer and rabbits.

Hoping to suck excess water from the bed, we planted water-loving plants near the lone camellia: Louisiana iris, deciduous holly, native swamp dogwood, joepyeweed, New York ironweed, and, by default, clethra, a plant that can tolerate excess moisture. Strange bedfellows for a camellia, but they all seem to get along well and thrive.

A long view of Shoa in our fall garden

Today, ten years later, that camellia, a sasanqua called ‘Shoa no Sakae,’ produces thousands of flower buds every year, giving us spectacular bloom for two full months.

Even  snow-frosted buds will open on balmy winter days. When blossoms shatter and petals fall, the ground becomes a swirl of pink.

On rainy days, there are still puddles beneath the plant. A slight slope, almost imperceptible, has developed over time, so the bed constantly drains, if ever so slowly. That trickling just may keep the fungus at bay.

A buckeye sips nectar from woolly summersweet, or clethra, originally heeled in near the Shoa. It prospered in moist ground, so we gave it permanent berth. Today it provides summer interest 

Why did that camellia survive and thrive when seven others failed? Its companion plants today are slackers at sucking up water compared to the roots of the original pine.

Turns out that sasanquas are less susceptible to root rot than are japonicas, and they can tolerate more sun than japonicas. The Shoa was the only sasanqua in our Gang of Eight.

Gardener’s Aside: Most camellia hybrids probably react to wet feet more like japonicas than sasanquas.

And sasanquas have their limits, too, as we discovered a decade later.

History repeats itself. . .

. . .in ways we can’t always predict.

Oh dear.

Fast forward to 2016. It’s been a rainy rainy two years. We’ve just cut down an aging crabapple in front of the house. During the hurricane it had saved our roof by intercepting falling pines, so we felt a special fondness for it.

Reaching for the sky, not quite in full bloom

Every spring since then, its blooms had kicked up their heels and danced under the sky. Unfortunately, the tree itself had become a sad sack. After we cut it down, we learned that it was still a benevolent provider.

Years prior to Isabel, just for fun, we had taken cuttings of Shoa that readily rooted. We never found a spot for them. They were orphans kicking around in pots, too good to toss.

Our odds-defying surviving Shoa gave us a new respect for these potted offspring. We planted the youngsters en masse around the crabapple. Happy to find a home, they rewarded us by jumping out of the ground. For almost a decade under the light shade of the crabapple they grew strong and bloomed.

Bright camellia blossoms in drier soil reaching for the sky today

But something else was going on. A healthy network of crabapple roots was moderating water supply and providing almost perfect drainage to the bed.

Today, without the crabapple, shade is missing and the camellias sit in puddles after a rain.

Water from an adjacent raised bed drains toward them, creating a boots-stuck-in-the-mud swamp. Not promising.

We began some half-hearted experiments to manage the water, but it is 2017 now and we have to come to terms with the losses. We had  seven shoas to start. We have three left. The bed is almost cleared of plants now. We’re adding more than a ton of organic “cotton dirt” (available locally from the gin) and all purpose builder’s sand, mixed, to raise the bed. And we’re switching to azaleas! Ya gotta take your losses and adapt. Time will give us a picture of  survivors or limpers.

And the garden goes on. And we don’t know where the next steps will take us.

C. sasanqua ‘Chansonette,’ three of them, among the first to be planted in our garden, and then replanted because they were not thriving in a moist area, despite thirsty pines. They survived direct hits from Isabel and are blooming machines

Camellias in our Garden       Siting and Planting Camellias

 Pruning and Fertilizing our Camellias       Insects and Diseases of Camellias

Camellias Become  Collateral Storm Damage       Camellia Recovery and Care

Air Layering Camellias     Wildlife and Camellias

Choosing Camellias     Landscaping with Camellias    Companions for Camellias

Special for Camellia Lovers


3 Responses to 4. Camellias Become Collateral Storm Damage

  1. BetteLou says:

    Sharing your experiences is such valuable information for others. Thank you!

  2. Jill Reed says:

    I live in North Central Florida and am involved in the Ocala Camellia Society. I was searching for information about post-hurricane camellia care to present at our next meeting and came across your blog. You identified issues that I had not thought of. Can you add any more advice for me to share with the members of our group? Hurricane Irma left some of us with trees downed on or near our camellias, flooding, and/or uprooting. I was planning a brief talk on things to do to save damaged or stressed camellias. I’m glad I found your site – I look forward to reading all your posts about camellias especially.

    Would you mind if I shared a link on our facebook page? (Ocala Camellia Society)

    • I am so sorry to hear about the damage to your camellias. There is too much to talk about in this space, so I have sent a lengthy reply directly to you. If you are checking back to this site, and have not received it, let me know and I will post the full comment. Good luck with your camellias.

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