Somehow or other everyone seems to have gotten it in their heads that camellias have no scent. The reason is probably La Dame aux Camellias in which novel, the dame in question always wore them to the Paris Opera, because they were scentless and would not trouble her tubercular chest.
While it’s true that the big and showy blooms of Camellia japonica don’t have any smell in particular, there are other families of camellas that do. Camellia sasanqua is a bush with a prettier horizontal growing habit than the upright japonicas, and Camellia lutchuensis has a remarkable spicy odor, and then there’s Camellia rusticana. That also has some pretensions to a perfume and when you start breeding programs among those varieties, what do you get?
That’s right, the bane of Marguerite – a perfume.
You do have to pick and choose. Camellia sasanqua seems to have the most frequently reported fragrance, the authors of The Fragrant Year claimed that they were often surprised to find how many of the camellias had smells, and they singled out Apple Blossom, and Maiden’s Blush for mention. I myself haven’t had the best luck smelling camellias in bloom. When we used to go down to DC and visit in the early spring, I always made it my business to check out the local camellias and I never once came on any with a smell. But this situation is changing.
If you go searching on Camellia Forest, you will now find the occasional variety with a scent. They mention “Tama- Ikari” and another one that blooms in fall “Autumn Sunrise”. The smells are variously described as gentle (for which you can read “faint”) but sometimes you surprising descriptions of fullness and spiciness, and even of Spring Flowers. One cultivar called “Bob Hope” with apparently brash red flowers is said to smell like daffodils.
I’m hoping for a floral variation on tea myself, since camellias are relatives of the tea plant, once called Thea sinensis and now usually called Camellia sinensis. I could definitely be up for that, a subtle flowery take on tea. And there is the fact that quite a large number of camellias will now survive as far north as Zone 6!
Cultivation is another matter. Growers toss up conflicting advice, but from observation I can say two things.
One, camellias like acid soil and they tend to do well in the same places that azaleas and rhododendrons thrive. It’s a pretty simple rule of thumb.
Two, camellias hate wind.
I don’t know what it is about them, but like the lady in the novel, they are fussy about drafts and are very good candidates for planting near foundations. Particularly on the south sides of houses, you have to tuck your camellia in where the sunshine pools, or indeed, anyplace where the sun shines, and keep it out of the wind! You will be rewarded with a marvelous gift of blooms at a time of year when nothing else is doing in the garden, namely November or February.
I can hardly wait, actually. I’ve never lived anywhere that camellias would grow in before. I mean, I’m prepared to go to trouble for them, pay through the nose, water them, feed them, run errands for them, bring them pralines, pick up their fan if they drop it.