High Maintenance Plants & People

Behold my Camellia ‘Niccio’s Bella Rossa’:


My li’l camellia cowers in the cold and snow.

Sad, right? Let me tell you the story of this plant. I spotted her a few years ago at the garden center – in bloom – and was immediately smitten. Anxiously, I checked the tag. Zone 8, it said. Prefers acid soil. I can make it work, I thought, disregarding my alkaline soil and Zone 7 location. I have that little protected area in the side yard by the fence. It doesn’t get below 10 degrees here that often. Just because that other camellia I planted a few years ago died almost immediately doesn’t mean this one will, too.

And on and on with the rationalizing. Sixty dollars later and the sweet little thing was in my passenger seat and on her way to the inevitable slow demise (but hopefully not!) in my garden.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we buy these precious, high-maintenance plants that we know will require constant coddling and tending?

I mean, I consider myself a very practical person. I drive an old Honda. I’ve pretty much abandoned make-up and jewelry. I’d rather eat meatloaf than prime rib, rather walk my dog than play golf. I like things to be easy, sensible, and reliable.

I generally try to surround myself with easy people, too. “Low-maintenance” people who pay their bills and show up to work every day. People who don’t have giant mood swings, constant hurt feelings, or mysterious ailments and traumas. Much better to have folks in your life who don’t need deadheading, dividing, or staking, who will perform faithfully for you year after year, without your having to ask.

So why do I lust after camellias? It really doesn’t make sense. I know deep down my gardening life would be easier and more sanguine if I would just stick to the hostas, carex, sedums, and phlox that are properly suited to my Black Walnutty Northern Virginia garden. Why would I go through all the effort and heartache of inviting an acid-loving denizen of the Deep South into my life, yet again?

I mean, I should have learned my lesson with Camellia ‘Yuletide’ back in ’09, right? Talk about heartache. I first spied ‘Yuletide’ when I worked at the garden center during the fall of that year. I was transporting some plants in a little electric truck to one of the back lots when I suddenly slammed on the brakes. Placed serendipitously together in one of the overflow beds was a small Camellia ‘Yuletide’, in full bloom, flanked by a couple of large nandinas heavy with crimson fruit. This simple combination was a stunning vision in red! My heart raced.

That same week, I attempted to recreate the vignette in my backyard. I spent about two hours digging a wide, shallow hole with a pedestal of carefully amended soil on which to perch the camellia, as my internet research had advised. I backfilled a third of the way, lightly pressed, and watered. Repeated three times. Carefully mulched. Meanwhile, I am sure the viburnum sitting a few feet away was like, “this is some bullshit. She just opened a wedge in the ground and shoved me in. Pfffft.”

Alas, by spring it was clear that ‘Yuletide’ was not merry. I would check it each day, and each day it seemed yet another branch had succumbed to the dreaded “dieback.” Heartbreak! I tore the plant out and promised myself I would never do it again — with the same sense of hurt betrayal that I swore to myself years ago that I’d never date another Texan.

And yet here I am with another camellia. And here I am again with the fussing and anxiety. I planted ‘Bella Rossa’ far away from my black walnuts, so (fingers crossed) no dieback yet. Still, all week the forecast calls for temps below 10 degrees, so I rummage through the basement for an old fleece blanket and some rope. I wrap Bella up carefully to protect the beautiful plump buds that might (with luck) open into exquisite fully double blooms the color of a child’s flushed cheek.

I know deep down that’s a pretty big “might.” And part of me feels ridiculous for doting on a plant this way. Most of the time I choose sensible plants that are native to the area or otherwise suited to my environs. Toughness and adaptability – in plants as well as people – are the qualities I find most beautiful of all.

Still, each day I visit ‘Bella Rossa’ and tend to her health, hoping for a few enchanting blooms come March. See, sometimes high maintenance is worth it. I guess we’re all high maintenance sometimes, and where would we be if we never took a chance on those who required a little extra care?

Camellia 'Nuccio's Bella Rossa' from oregonstate.edu

Camellia ‘Nuccio’s Bella Rossa’ from oregonstate.edu

19 thoughts on “High Maintenance Plants & People

  1. Such a beautiful, sad write-up. I feel so sorry for you. Have you tried a camellia indoors over winter and putting outside after the last frost? I am in zone 5 and overwinter hibiscus and lantana.

    • Don’t feel too sorry. They’re only plants, right? Trying to overwinter a camellia is an interesting idea. I fear it would be too dry in my house during the winter, but it’s worth a try.

  2. oh my gosh…..this was just too entertaining to read….i can so relate….i live in the north georgia mtns and i’ve tried more than once to cajole star jasmine and gardenias to grow in my backyard…. the gardenia tried, but the jasmine went pffffffttttt first winter that dropped to single digits….. i’ve had better luck with warm loving plants using rolling plant stands….i also have a veritable jungle of avocado and mangoes!!! a plant inside every one!!! hahaha…..good luck with that camelia!!!!

    • Thanks, Beagle. I had visions of planting some gardenias in a nice cushy bed around our pool this summer, but when I saw they needed acid soil, too, I snapped back to reality. I also tried transplanting a sprouting avocado seed from my compost heap into a pot last summer. I knew that was doomed from the beginning, but I couldn’t help myself.

  3. I have been there and done that too! I guess because us gardeners are so optimistic! We think that we can do anything. If we talk to that plant enough, touch it, coddle it-it will grow no matter what the tag says. Yup-I can do that! I am still coddling a Goji plant in acid soil. But yes I can alkalize that soil and make it grow. Yup, until I forget to do that some year. Garden on!

    • Exactly. I have the same issue with roses. I have a pretty strict rule about no chemicals in my yard, but I am ashamed to say I sprayed a little ‘Fairy’ rose with some toxic crap to get rid of the thrips or some damn insect that was eating the buds. I soooo want that plant to bloom.

  4. It’s so good to be reading you again, Mary, and with a tale of woe that every gardener is doomed to repeat. No matter how many times I say that I won’t do it again, I fall off the wagon at the first temptation – a little flirtatious orange here, or a glimpse of divine true blue there. Hopeless and helpless, consumed by plant lust and always for the thing that’s the most unsuitable and inappropriate. My theory is that it’s a psychological training ground for dealing with profound loss.

    • Ha, I like that theory. Since I have lived through the demise of several coveted camellias, hydrangeas, and roses, I will be better prepared to face my own mortality. Makes sense. 🙂

  5. Oh Mary, I feel your pain with your cold snap; I live in Oregon (where it’s unusually warm this winter), but follow the weather back there on the east coast because me son lives there. I know it’s so cold!
    Now that my kids have grown up and moved away, I have one bedroom devoted to overwintering plants. In my case, it’s camellia sinensis (tea plants), a couple of different types of rosemary and some aloe veras. I know I should give up on the tea plants (I’m in borderline zone 7-6, depending on the weather, and it’s way too dry here for them anyway), but every time they bloom, I am smitten. Am I being immoral to keep them alive and suffering? Or encouraging them to evolve into a plant tolerant of my area? I’ve been lusting after growing Meyer lemons; my local garden center now actually has them for sale, what a tease! I know they would die outside.

    • If it’s immoral to screw up plant care, call me a major offender. I am pretty awful at overwintering things and taking care of houseplants in general. They all have such specific needs that I can’t seem to fulfill. I dream of having a conservatory….but I can only imagine keeping the temperature and humidity just so in a conservatory is a whole other skill set that I would have trouble mastering. I want a Meyer lemon, too!

  6. First, I love this: “Low-maintenance” people who pay their bills and show up to work every day. People who don’t have giant mood swings, constant hurt feelings, or mysterious ailments and traumas. Much better to have folks in your life who don’t need deadheading, dividing, or staking, who will perform faithfully for you year after year, without your having to ask.” I might have to quote you on that!
    Second, there’s this newfangled fad called Container Gardening! Given your climate, soil, trees, etc., and your proclivity for bringing home ahem, unsuitable plants (I’ve had my share), maybe you could try putting your camellia in a big, ginormous pot (not clay), where you could give it the acidic conditions, and when necessary, bundle it up in a fleece blanket.
    Now I have a picture of a shivering camellia wrapped in a fleece blanket in my head.
    So good to “hear’ you again, Mary!

    • Thanks, Vicki! Wouldn’t I have to take the camellia inside for the winter? I guess I thought that being in a pot would surely kill a tenderish plant, even if wrapped up?

      • Are you in Zone 7 there? I am 6B and 7 in protected spots, and have had luck planting camellias in the ground (amended the soil with sulphur and compost), on the north and northwest sides of my house. My main problem is repelling the deer, who last year, Ate. Every. Single. Leaf. And. Bud. from two shrubs. ): I sprayed some potent repellent on them this year and so far so good. I have not grown camellias in pots, but have grown other woodies in pots, and they have survived a couple of bad winters. So, if you go the container route, just have a big enough pot to contain the rootball and then some, acidify your native soil with sulfur or some peat moss, mulch deeply, water deeply into the late fall, and place it in protected spot – like an ell of your house – N or NW exposure. For insurance, you could wrap the whole thing up in a big piece of burlap, but remove the burlap when temps go above 35 degrees consistently, day and night. Heck, now I think I’m going to try a camellia in a pot this year! Good luck!

  7. I can certainly understand why you tried a camellia again, and I hope she makes it through this hideous winter. While I do hope you will not be in a state of mourning come April or May, you may want to consider some of the cold hardy camellias (http://www.camforest.com/category_s/27.htm). There are even a few reds.

    Now, have you broken your promise about Texans?

  8. Thanks for the link! Of course it would be sensible to try one of those cold hardy camellias, it’s just not as exciting to have the blooms in April as it is to have blooms a bit earlier. But it’s better than watching one die, I guess!

    I do love me some southern men. No other Texans, but I did marry a denizen of the Deep South. He only requires a medium amount of maintenance 🙂

  9. Hey, what’s wrong with Texas boys? I have a good one at home right beside me. 😉 I get the zone pushing, though. Here it’s with Mexican or Australian plants that can take a mild winter but not a harsh one. Oh, but they’re so tempting!

  10. One thing I learned getting into horticulture in Denver…avoid warm spots for cold-tender plants, esp broadleaf evergreens…go for N and E sides. Mostly better results, but that’s high elevation sun and very dry air! Not sure what you do in humid DC to handle a more NE (or Denver) winter…

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