This beauty shows its colors early

A couple of week ago I got a call from journalist Lili Singer, who needed some information about Camellia sasanqua for her article in Los Angeles Times. Today this article was published. You can see my sasanqua cultivar recommendations in the article.

Dwarf Shishi. A seedling of ‘Shishigashira’. Originated by Toichi Domoto, California in 1988.

You can get the article from LA Times archive: http://tinyurl.com/64cyo7


THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

This beauty shows its colors early

It’s not camellias as usual with sasanquas. They bask in the Southern California sun and bloom in the fall, and they ask for so little in return.

By Lili Singer
Special to The Times

November 30, 2006

ON warm autumn days, a fragrance rises from the sunlit crescent of ‘Dwarf Shishigashira’ camellias in Melinda and Allan Siegel’s backyard. The earthy scent is unusual — similar to tea — and it’s subtle, Allan says, just like the season.

Nothing subtle about the flowers, though: Bright rose-pink blooms cascade across the Siegels’ sunny Los Angeles garden.

Wait, you say. A winter-blossoming, shade-loving plant like the camellia flowering in the fall? And in the sun?

Absolutely. These early bloomers are sasanqua camellias, also known as the “sun camellias.”

“Most people don’t realize that they’re camellias,” says Elsie Bracci, a revered camellia devotee who, with husband Sergio, maintains a vast collection with 15 types of sasanqua in their San Gabriel garden. Few plants, the Braccis say, give so much yet ask for so little.

All this group of camellias wants is a good tan. The craving for sun, even inland, is partly what distinguishes sasanquas — the collective term for cultivars of Camellia sasanqua, C. xhiemalis and C. xvernalis — from the common cultivars of C. japonica and C. reticulata.

“Less than half a day of sun, and they won’t flower,” says Julius Nuccio, one of three family members operating Altadena-based Nuccio’s Nurseries, among the world’s premiere camellia growers.

Sasanquas do well with or without regular irrigation, and they live a remarkably long time. David Parks, owner of the Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, N.C., says specimens have lasted 500 years in the right conditions.

Cultivars with lyrical names such as ‘Mine-No-Yuki’ (which translates to ‘White Doves’) and ‘Hana Jiman’ (‘Boastful Flower’) include low spreaders, compact uprights and small willowy trees. All have neat evergreen foliage and amazing pest resistance. Ask the Braccis what they love most, and the couple responds in unison: “No petal blight!” The fungus, which makes other kinds of camellia blossoms turn a sickly brown, has no effect on sasanquas. Flowers also arrive early — and in abundance.

“Sasanquas put on a massive show, then drop their petals for a carpet of white or pink snow,” says David MacLaren, curator of the camellia collection at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

AS enchanting as this scene can be, sasanquas have hardly been a garden staple, here or elsewhere. Though long-valued for oil-rich seeds and hardwood, the plants have fallen in and out of favor with gardeners since 14th century Japan.

The first sasanquas hit Europe in 1869, but most were lost to frost. By the early 1900s, sasanquas were being planted in the southern United States. Given the choice, however, most gardeners and garden show contestants eschewed delicate-looking sasanquas in favor of large-leafed C. japonica and C. reticulata, whose stately blossoms don’t fall apart when cut.

Tastes change, and these days, small and simple are in. Many gardeners want plants that are easy to grow, work in small spaces or simply look different, and sasanquas fit the bill.

“Look at the blotches on this flower,” Elsie Bracci says excitedly, pointing to cloud-white spots on the reddish petals of her favorite sasanqua, ‘Shibori Egao,’ whose name translates roughly to ‘Variegated Smiling Face.’

The ‘Shishigashira’ by the Braccis’ front door is larger than the Siegels’ dwarf cultivar but still a compact marvel, with scores of 2 1/2 -inch-wide flowers, each one a ruffled, rosy pink mane for a cultivar whose name means ‘Lion’s Head.’ The slow-growing bush has taken 12 years to rise to 5 feet.

Similarly, the Siegels’ snail-paced groundcover of ‘Dwarf Shishigashira’ is only 18 inches from front to back after seven years.

“Man, is it slow!” says Marie Gamboa, the Garden Pacific designer who planted the Siegels’ backyard. She backed the ‘Dwarf Shishis,’ as they are often called, with a row of the faster-growing ‘Cleopatra,’ a paler pink sasanqua with stamens that look like long gold eyelashes.

Over at the Bracci home, Elsie’s husband Sergio just pruned the ‘Shibori Egao’ with a chain saw — again — to keep its whip-like branches under their roofline. Whether a sprinter or a slow grower, all sasanquas want to be trees, says Yuri Panchul, a camellia enthusiast who is assembling what he hopes will be a definitive collection of sasanquas at his home in Sunnyvale, near San Jose.

In time, he says, sasanquas can reach 15 to 20 feet. Some are just pokier and more compressed than others.

IN its native habitat, the subtropical forests of southwest Japan, Camellia sasanqua is a variable species that breeds readily with other genetically compatible camellias. Offspring may be horizontal or vertical, compact or open.

Wild sasanqua flowers are typically single and white, sometimes with a blush like plum blossoms — thus the Japanese name sazanka, or “plum-flowered tea.”

During centuries of cultivation, more than 200 types of sasanquas have emerged. Flowers with few petals, flowers with many petals. Cupped like a rose, flat as a daisy. Luminous white, soft pink, the occasional red.

The breeding process is lovingly slow. The progression from seed to flower may take about five years, horticulturists say — “sometimes 14 or 20,” according to Panchul. Only one in 1,000 seedlings will yield qualities distinctive enough to be selected, named, registered and brought to the public.

Even so, many Southern Californians have been growing sasanquas in their gardens for years. They just didn’t know it. Sasanqua seedlings are used for grafting — as root-rot-resistant understock for cuttings of other camellias, says the Huntington’s MacLaren. That Camellia japonica in your garden just may owe its stellar performance to a Camellia sasanqua in an uncredited role.

This time of year, they’re also a reminder of the season’s delicate beauty. In the daytime, gentle bees and the occasional hummingbird hover over the pollen-rich flowers, searching for autumn in a teacup. By nightfall, in the quiet moonlight, you can almost hear the petals drop.

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View it, buy it, plant it

Interested in sasanqua camellias? Some ways to learn more:

Seeing: Two of the world’s best camellia gardens are in Southern California.

The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino has Sasanqua Hillside plus plantings in and around the Japanese garden. Look for ‘Shishigashira’ near the giant bamboo Bambusa oldhamii as well as the ‘Dwarf Shishigashira’ on the opposite side of the road, planted near mondo grass. Information: (626) 405-2100, http://www.huntington.org .

At Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, more than 50 types of sasanquas await beneath oaks in the Camellia forest and in the Japanese garden. Information: (818) 949-4200, http://www.descansogardens.org .

Buying: Nuccio’s Nurseries is a world-renowned specialist in camellias and azaleas. Its catalog lists about 40 sasanqua cultivars. 3555 Chaney Trail, Altadena; (626) 794-3383; http://www.nucciosnurseries.com .

Planting: Plant or move sasanquas in autumn or winter, while they’re dormant. They do best in sunny spots with well-drained soil — no standing water.

Caring: Once established, plants can get by with regular or infrequent irrigation.

Some growers recommend feeding, in the spring through August. Nuccio’s recommends applying cottonseed meal in April, when new leaves appear; in June; and in August, when buds are starting to set. If desired, prune in spring for size or shape. On low, spreading varieties, prune upright branches.

Learning more: Though slightly dated, “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias” by Stirling Macoboy includes more than 100 sasanquas, all with excellent color photos. Another reference: http://www.sazanka.org , the website of amateur grower and hybridizer Yuri Panchul.

— Lili Singer

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Standouts to show off

Fewer than 50 types of sasanqua camellias are grown for the nursery trade. ‘Jean May,’ a popular variety with cupped pink flowers, “is very nice,” sasanqua devotee Yuri Panchul says, “but others are good too.” In no particular order, 10 cultivars that Panchul says are unusual and overlooked:

‘Stars ‘n Stripes’: The first striped sasanqua. Blooms profusely. Nice round, shrubby shape.

‘Dwarf Shishigashira’: Almost horizontal. Very slow-growing.

‘Choji Guruma’: The only anemone-form sasanqua. Fast grower, upright.

‘Little Pearl’: Also recommended by Nuccio’s Nurseries. Pink opening to white.

‘Twinkle Twinkle’: Dwarf with little star-shaped flowers. Good in containers.

‘Yume’: A new hybrid. Unusual color (pink to white) and large, profuse flowers.

‘Egao’ group: Ancient natural hybrids. Large flowers.

‘Narumigata’: Large, flat, white flowers with cupped pink edges. Extremely fast grower — “totally insane,” Panchul says — with branches growing as much as 3 feet in one year.

‘Slim ‘n Trim’: Small leaf, vertical habit. Can be shaped like a small Italian cypress. Flat pink flowers.

‘Baby Jane’: Dwarf. Hybridized for bonsai. Grows only a few inches a year.

— Lili Singer

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