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. . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.