Companion Plants for the Regal Camellia

C. sasanqua ‘Bonanza’ blooms happily in my front border from November until January.

It’s bloom season for the Camellia sasanqua here in the South, and looking around it’s not hard to understand why she’s the queen of the winter garden. While she’s beautiful on her own, I like to add a variety of both foliage and flowering plants around my camellias to finish the look. I thought I’d share a few of those ideas today.

When you’re considering companion plants, look for those that will thrive in the same part-shade conditions as your camellia. There are many to choose from, and most of them can be found in the shade section of your garden center.

Prostrate yew and creeping jenny are examples of plants that work well with camellias, as they have the same moisture and light requirements.

If you like a simple, elegant look, one option is to plant a group of autumn ferns in front of your camellia, along with Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, or creeping jenny, as a groundcover. Autumn ferns are evergreen in the South, and in spring the copper-colored new growth is lovely against the deep green of the camellia and the acid green of the creeping jenny.

Autumn fern has coppery new growth in spring.

Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ planted in a mass around the shrub, or the similar-looking Carex oshimensis ‘Everillo’, would be another option if you like simplicity.

If you have plenty of depth in your planting bed, you can layer small, slow-growing shrubs with your camellias. Ilex crenata ‘Hoogendorn’ has the look of a boxwood, and it does well in part-shade, so I often use this versatile holly in my projects. Lenten Roses are a perfect addition to this planting scheme, adding color just when you’re longing to see something blooming outside your window in February.

Prostrate yew, Lenten Rose, and pachysandra cover the ground at the base of a camellia grouping in my garden.
‘Bonanza’ is layered with prostrate yew for year-round elegance.

If you like the idea of a more texture-rich planting, go to the shade section of the garden center and fill your cart with a variety of shade plants to see how they look together. Some will be evergreen or semi-evergreen in Southern planting zones, and some will be dormant in winter, so keep that in mind as you select plants. Here are some to consider that I’ve not already mentioned: Tricyrtis formosana ‘Autumn Glow’, tiarella, heuchera, epimedium, pulmonaria, Rohdea japonica, lamium. Any type of hosta or fern would also work well. Buy these smaller plants in groups of three, five, or more, and once you’re home, play with the arrangement until you’re pleased with the look.

A gorgeous white C. sasanqua that I picked up on sale many years ago, name unkown.

Bulbs are another possibility. Consider snowdrops, such as Galanthus elwesii, which is thought to be a good selection for Southern gardens, or the wood hyacinth, Hyacinthoides hispanica. Both do fine in shade plantings.

Any of these companion plant ideas would work just as well with a spring-blooming Camellia japonica, which will typically be a much larger shrub at maturity. All upright camellias can be limbed up over time, creating the perfect area for plant layering underneath the lower branches.

C. sasanqua ‘October Magic’

Sun or Shade?

Camellias thrive in part-shade conditions, either in dappled sunlight, or morning sun and afternoon shade. Too much afternoon sun will sometimes cause leaf burn, so if you’re planting a new camellia keep these conditions in mind.

Planting Tips

Camellias don’t require amended soil to thrive unless you’re planting in a spot with horribly compacted clay soil, in which case I would loosen it up with Perma-Till or a similar product. That being said, most companion plants (perennials and groundcovers) will appreciate the addition of soil amendments and/or compost worked into the area where you want to plant. If you have good soil, that is easy to dig in, you can plant away.

This camellia, planted by the previous owners, is a horizontal grower that blooms profusely for months on end.

Field Trip

If you’re looking for something to do with a gardening pal, take a drive to Fort Valley, Georgia sometime and visit the headquarters of the American Camellia Society.  November and December are good months to see fall-blooming sasanquas, or visit from February into March to see japonicas. Staff members suggest that you call several days ahead of your visit to find out about peak bloom periods, as weather does affect bloom times. Unlike a botanical garden, this property is dedicated to showcasing camellias, and more importantly, preserving antique varieties you may only see growing in places like Charleston, South Carolina. If you want to learn more about these treasured plants, and maybe pick up a new one for your garden, the trip is well worth it.

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