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Camellias, a flower lover's cup of tea

For those who insist that Florida is seasonless, I say feast your eyes on the winter camellia. These porcelainlike petals have a variety of forms and can be coaxed to grace our shade gardens.

Bred from the three wild Asian species C. reticulata, C. japonica and C. sasanqau, the assortment of hybrids available at garden centers and camellia shows are also closely related to one of our favorite herb beverages: green tea. Yes, the leaves in green-tea bags are from the camellia species sinensis.

Camellias do best farther north, with stunning specimens often noticed in Gainesville. We can get similar results if we meet the plants' simple needs: partial shade, steady soil moisture and nutrients, and deeply mulched acidic soil free of lime, sea shell bits or dolomite.

Each spring, bags of oak leaves are left on the curb on garbage day; get a few and mulch your camellias (and other acid lovers such as azaleas, gardenias and ixoras) with 8 inches of leaves. Soon they will settle into a mulch 4 to 6 inches thick that will keep their roots cool while it traps water in the soil.

The main reason for camellia bud drop is insufficient or irregular soil moisture. Oak-leaf mulch will prevent that problem while it adds vital organic matter and natural acids to your camellias.

Professional camellia exhibitors use a variety of feeding methods to produce blooms that are pinnacles of perfection, so they don't need advice from me. But homeowners who want healthy, free-blooming camellias each year should feed theirs in March, July, September and December with cottonseed meal and menhaden fish meal. Cottonseed meal is a gentle, natural, acidifying soil food, and the fish meal provides important plant nutrients, including slow-release nitrogen and trace elements. Sprinkle the food right on top of the mulch layer and water deeply.

If mulched properly, camellias appreciate a deep weekly watering during the winter and spring. They don't like wet feet, so don't plant them in areas that get soggy and stay that way during the summer rains.

One more reward of winter is getting hybrid camellias at local garden shops and at camellia shows, where rare plants are sold alongside the good old reliable stalwarts.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnesmsn.com.

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