Sure, we can grow camellias in Southern California, but our camellias will never burst against a tangy orange bald cypress, and you won’t find them lingering beneath the edges of ancient live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Our daytime visit to Airlie Gardens in coastal Wilmington, North Carolina, preceded the evening crowds that visit the gardens for its acclaimed “Enchanted Airlie” holiday light display between Thanksgiving and Christmas every year.
We were there to observe camellia buds and blossoms lighting up these evergreen shrubs and small trees between their dark glossy leaves. Considering at one time there were over 5,000 camellia plants in these gardens, we came to the right place. We instantly fell in love with camellias as a genus and Airlie Gardens as a whole — especially for a garden on the brink of winter. We even brushed against blooming ‘Encore’ azaleas and then found ourselves convening between luscious ferns during our three-hour tour.
Wilmington, a coastal town in North Carolina (USDA Zone 8a), is in the middle of the Camellia Belt, which follows North America’s wet southeast hip along Zones 7-9 — where climates are closest to the plant’s native habitat in eastern Asia. Of 300+ species of camellias, the most common are Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica. The former bloom fall into winter, and the latter bloom winter into spring. The good news if you are not in the belt: There are thousands of hybrids, some of which are hardy all the way to Zone 6. Camellias need consistent watering, and should be planted in well-drained acidic soil to thrive. The best part about camellia care, in our opinion, is that they don’t like direct sunlight, so they’ll do well in areas of bright shade in your garden. Most camellias bloom late fall through early spring, to add color to your yard’s duller days.
Original property owners Sarah and Pembroke Jones started the collection of camellias and azaleas at the turn of the 20th century. Sarah Jones and a full staff of gardeners passionately continued to build and transform the gardens up until her death at age 84 in 1943. She threw lavish private garden parties, eventually offering public tours as early as 1931.
In 1948, the Corbett family purchased the land and continued to maintain the gardens, bringing in more camellias among other plants, hosted more garden parties, and offered more regular tours. In 1999, the family sold the 67-acre gardens to New Hanover County, which established Airlie Gardens as we know it today.
We caught up with Scott Childs, the grounds maintenance supervisor, who answered our Qs by email. Below, check out his tips on peak bloom times, mulching and fertilizing.
And then keep exploring more photos (that look like paintings) from our visit.
When are the peak weeks to visit Airlie Gardens for the showiest camellias?
The Sasanquas peak bloom in October through November. The Japonicas peak in February and early March. Between these two groups and their many cultivars, on a good year, we have camellias blooming from September into April.
Which camellias are crowd favorites?
The Japonicas are probably preferred over the Sasanquas. They are both beautiful but the South Japonicas are quintessential.
How are the camellias maintained at Airlie throughout the year?
We keep them mulched, that is it. Our gardens have been cultivated for over 100 years so we have a great soil ecosystem.
What, if any, pest concerns are there for camellias at Airlie?
The biggest issue I run into is root rot. Camellias are shallow rooted and do not like too much mulch—especially in contact with the trunk.
Any tips on growing camellias?
Soil conditions vary but they need moist well-drained soil. They will not tolerate standing water. Unless you have soil rich in iron, make sure that you use a fertilizer with iron in it. Also micro nutrient deficiency can be an issue so it often is worth buying a special azalea-camellia fertilizer for them.