The Sweethearts and the Culprits
Those knock-out blooms and shiny, classy evergreen foliage were what seduced us. Certainly not any intention of attracting wildlife. So we never thought about bees and birds, or deer and voles taking advantage of our camellias.
Which is understandable, because camellias come from the orient. Much as they are at home in our gardens today, they are alien to native wildlife.
Bees, Butterflies and Birds
But camellias have one gift for wildlife on the wing.
They bloom when the garden is brown and the weather is chilly and the world is napping.
Those occasional balmy days that break up cold weather stretches are like dinner bells to torpid bees and ants.
They rouse themselves and get busy scouting for pollen and nectar.
In early spring we’ve seen hardy bumblebees and other types of bees forage among the pollen-rich anthers of late-winter-blooming Japonicas.
On sunny autumn days, we’ve seen the lone migrating monarch, dancing yellow sulfurs and an occasional late swallowtail investigate fall-blooming Sasanquas.
Whether their fly-bys and landings are successful and their curiosity rewarded with a big drink I can’t tell.
Here’s where choices matter. Those large, come-hither blooms overblown with petals are not the first choice of insects. The anthers that hold the pollen are often hidden and the structure of the flower can be so complicated that impatient bees can’t waste time figuring it out.
Best choice from a bee’s perspective is a simple blossom — you’ve probably seen them — the ones with bright yellow stamens that stand out from a single halo of petals.
Simple flowers may also have a greater offering of nectar than their flouncy cousins. In large, complex blooms, nectaries may be reduced to compensate for the energy it takes to grow an added burden of petals.
Leaves on camellias count, too. We may admire those handsome, glistening evergreen leaves and thick lush growth from the comfort of our easy chair, but for over-wintering birds they provide essential cover from wind and haven from hawks.
It is not unusual for us to open the door on a nasty day and see flocks of small birds startle and fly out of shrubs where they had been loafing contentedly.
The Doe-eyed Invaders
In a community near us, we know a gardener whose wife feeds the deer. Somehow that sounds like an oxymoron. But there are ways to make this work.
We try to remember that deer will usually take the path of least resistance to find food. In that same community, where deer seem to feel especially welcome (I wonder why), they have methodically chomped the leaves and twigs of every camellia around.
They can weaken small camellias, sometimes to the point of killing them unless they are rescued and potted for a year or so to regain health. They can defoliate large plants up to a height of about four feet, but only to a height of four feet because deer rarely care to stretch for a meal. Plants may look like eyesores but…
Not a tragedy! A little judicious pruning and you can turn that eyesore of a shrub into an attractive ten-foot tree that becomes too much of a chore to chomp.
When we want to create a small tree, we remove scroungy lower branches up to the height of deer browse.
We remove stubs close to the trunks, then select two or three upright trunks and prune out the others.
Finally, we shape the limbed-up shrub by removing scraggly stems and thin if necessary. The crown may look too small for the height of the tree at this point, so we usually wait for a couple of years of growth before we do more judicious shaping. We also check the shrub occasionally for whiskers near the base and do clean-up pruning.
Some camellias grow as trees in their native lands, so this is not radical pruning.
We frequently use this technique of limbing up to create small trees out of shrubs that over night have grown into large green lumps behind our backs.
The goal is to make the plant so attractive after we’ve pruned it that a visitor will assume this stunning specimen was planned from the beginning. (That’s a gardening trick we use all the time.)
Now we have a canvas underneath for growing deer-resistant ground covers like ferns or Solomon’s Seal, or deer-resistant annuals like impatiens. Easiest of all, is a two-inch layer of pine bark mulch, or a less formal leaf mulch.
This is not a solution for newly planted, small, or weak camellias. They are the first targets. We’ve seen them browsed to death.
Sprays work well. But when I used them I had to train myself to be thinking about the weather and the plants all the time.
I dared not procrastinate or goof off. Even a garden fanatic like me doesn’t want to do that.
So we do one-time prevention. We put single specimens in a four-foot-high cage, or we temporarily fence a few plants with material that’s five feet or taller. Not attractive in our natural woodland garden, but it’s not forever.
A round of hardware cloth, screening, or deer fencing for a couple of years until the plant gains stature and strength may mean the difference between life and death for a young camellia.
Blocking a deer path is another tactic we’ve used. Sometimes all that’s needed is a short length of fencing between trees or a strategic planting of an undesirable (to deer) plant.
We’ve planted Mahonia bealei between pines. It’s a stiff, narrow-growing, spikey plant with bright yellow blooms and dark blue berries in spring.
It happens to be daunting to deer and behaves itself in our garden, but in some southern states it is invasive.
These tricks don’t keep the deer off our property, but it does force them to look for another path of least resistance.
We have had active herds of deer here, but they have done little damage to our camellias. In fact, they stroll along people paths that wind through our camellia beds and create their own deer paths along edges.
Yes, we’ve lost a few camellias to deer browse, but we should have lost many more. We are beginning to suspect that the superior oil Bob sprays once or twice a year to combat tea scale may make a difference.
He is careful to drench tops and bottoms of leaves, so the plant is fully treated. (See page on Insects and Diseases of Camellias).
Perhaps the oil leaves a residue that is not appealing to deer. If so, it is a serendipitous solution.
The Underground Mafia
We were congratulating ourselves on outwitting the deer, when, from subterranean depths, the voles invaded. Tricky little devils, they used old mole tunnels to get around. No digging involved.
First they devoured tulip bulbs and roots of perennials. A lovely row of astilbes along a fence suddenly wilted. Stems came up in rootless bunches. After that the voles went big-time. A five-foot nandina toppled, bottomless, roots cut to the quick by the roto-rooters.
Did you know that a vole can eat its own weight of plants in a single day, and that a mother vole can have more than 10 litters a year, with up to 10 kids at a time? When these kids are a month old they can have kids of their own. No wonder they can take over a garden in a season.
We knew voles were attacking camellias in the Norfolk Botanical Garden. Would our camellias be next?
No sir. Not if we could help it.
Figuring the voles wouldn’t go for bruising their tender noses by digging among sharp stones, I collected gravel from the sides of our crush ‘n’ run road. Bob dug it in around the plants.
Did it work? None of our camellias ever wilted or toppled.
That was a primitive solution. Later we would find out about VoleBloc, or Permatill, a kind of gravel that when worked into the soil, will deter voles.
At one time, so many young camellias in the Norfolk Botanical Gardens had been lost to voles that new camellias were put in special wire baskets before planting. Much too much work. VoleBloc was more efficient, but also more expensive than road gravel.
Poisons like mothballs and coumadin are available, but we’ve never used them. Who knows if the target vole will snatch it or if an unsuspecting innocent will succumb.
If we let nature take its course and have patience, cats, foxes, and snakes are star players at vole-control without damage to a fragile environment. And maybe that is what finally happened.
After several years of vole-havoc, the voles disappeared. Maybe they’d cleaned us out of favorite roots, or maybe resident cats and foxes rose to vole-patrol challenge. This all happened several years ago, and we are hoping this long and deep dip in their numbers will continue.
And Squirrels, too
Not in our woodland garden, fortunately. They use the trees as a trapeze, and they consider our bird feeder a second-rate Olympic hurdle, but they have not touched our camellias.
They can, however, be maddingly persistent about nipping buds and blooms, then tossing them.
A friend recently sent me a picture of the single bloom she had finally rescued from a camellia she’d gotten from us — three years prior.
No one seems to know what forbidden (in our view) treasure draws them.
Perhaps nectaries at the base of each bloom? They are quick to toss the blooms aside after plucking them. Pepper spray, dogs and cats seem to be the only suggestions given for keeping them at bay, half-hearted at best. They are wily critters.
At least we don’t have hedgehogs, porcupines, or skunks, not that I’ve heard, lately.