Although camellias are known for their spectacular flowers, handsome foliage and tolerance for shade, they are conspicuously short on scent. Until now.
High in the foothills of Altadena, the Nuccio family is growing several camellias that have remarkable fragrance. Some smell lemony, some like jasmine and a few like anise.
When they called and asked if I wanted to see some of these scented camellias in bloom between our recent rainstorms, I shot up there like a bolt of lightning.
The unofficial camellia headquarters for Southern California, Nuccio’s Nurseries grow thousands of camellias and put out a catalog that lists hundreds of types.
Tom Nuccio took me around and, after getting sidetracked by new beauties like the striking ‘Yume’ with its pink and white magnolia-like blossoms, I got to sniff a few for myself.
He told me they are more fragrant on balmy days, but even with the rain clouds low, wet and chilly on the mountains behind the nursery, I could easily smell them, even from a few feet away.
One wild species, Camellia kissi, smelled lemony and another, C. grijsii, smelled like anise. In fact, a cultivar of the latter, named ‘Zhenzhucha,’ with flowers resembling apple blossoms and not much bigger, smelled just like licorice.
Nuccio thinks these two will add fragrance to new camellias in the future, but it was a third, C. lutchuensis, that smelled the best, surprisingly like jasmine and nearly as powerful. It reminded me a lot of the winter jasmine blooming on the arbor over my front gate.
This wildling, C. lutchuensis, has been used in hybridizing to come up with new camellias with a sultry jasmine scent.
Some of these are Japanese hybrids, some American, and the results are often very different. In Japan, simple, small flowers are appreciated, and the camellia bushes tend to carry lots of them. ‘Koto-no-Kaori,’ pictured above, is typical of these; the flowers are less than 2 inches across but have a heady aroma.
In America, size seems to be everything, and fragrant camellias like ‘High Fragrance’ and ‘Souza’s Pavlova’ tend to have much larger flowers that are ruffled and flouncy. Flowerson the pink, peony-like ‘Souza’s Pavlova’ are about 3 inches across, which, in the world of American camellias, is still considered only medium-sized. Although the flowers on American hybrids tend to be larger, there are fewer on each bush.
Some of these new scented camellias advertise this feat in their names, like ‘Scentuous’ and ‘Fragrant Pink,’ and a couple don’t fit in either of the categories above. ‘Scented Gem’ is a little pink single that opens to show a sea anemone-like center of tiny petals. It looks a lot like an inch-wide nosegay and has a strong jasmine scent.
The smaller-flowered fragrant camellias are really quite pretty, though they may take getting used to if you’re accustomed to huge hybrids. I find them to be natural in appearance, like an azalea or a handsome flowering shrub. Sometimes, even their growth is soft and wispy, making them a good choice for the more natural-looking garden.
If you want to sniff a few of these yourself, Nuccio’s is at the very base of the foothills, at 3555 Chaney Trail, just off Loma Alta Drive in Altadena, (818) 794-3383. It’s open every day, except Wednesdays and Thursday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Planting and Care
I was particularly interested in these scented camellias because I’ve been meaning to replace some of the 1940s varieties that line the seldom-visited east side of my house. In a regimental row, they look too much like trusty palace guards, and a little variety would be welcome.
They came with the place and survive with virtually no care, but some are right outside my wife’s sewing room windows. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were also fragrant?
An eastern exposure--where they get the morning sun but are safe from hot afternoons--is a favorite place of camellias. They also do well on the sunless north side of a house or under tall trees. They definitely need shade inland.
If you too are thinking of planting camellias, this is the time to do so. You can shop for them in bloom, so there are no big disappointments later on, and they begin growing in mid-March, so it’s a good idea to get them in the ground by then.
Nuccio suggests digging a hole twice as wide as the root ball and amending the soil so it is half coarse peat moss (coarse grades last longer) and half soil. Make sure the base of the plant is a little above ground level after refilling the hole.
If you have camellias that are getting too tall, you can prune them in early February, before growth begins, and still have flowers next year.
Remember to fertilize camellia plants in late March or April. This is the one important time; for maximum growth, though, you can fertilize every other month between March and September.
Nuccio recommends cottonseed meal, a natural fertilizer that acts slowly. Workers at the nursery scatter it on the soil and water it in during irrigation. Sometimes they also add iron.
Don’t cultivate around plants, because the roots are very close to the surface, but do clean up fallen petals and send them to the dump to deter the mushy petal blight fungus.
And, by all means, remember to enjoy your camellias and bring a few blossoms indoors for the center of the dining table. Float them in a shallow bowl of water.