Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

Camellia japonica 'Cheryl Lynn'

Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful plants wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular multi-layered blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.


Located about a half hour’s drive south of San Francisco, Filoli was built in the early 1900’s for Mr. and Mrs. William Bowers Bourn II. Bourn was heir to Empire Mine and founder of the Greystone Cellars in Napa Valley. The name Filoli was derived from the first two letters of each of the three parts of Mr. Bourn’s personal credo:

FIght for a just cause; LOve your fellow man; LIve a good life. = FILOLI

Under the couple’s care, Filoli grew to become one of the best-known examples of the Golden Age of American gardens. 

Mr. William Bowers Bourn II

Following the death of the Bourns, the estate passed to Mr. and Mrs. William Roth, owners of the Matson Navigation Company. Under their care, the garden was greatly expanded, eventually gaining worldwide recognition. In 1975, Mrs. Roth donated the Georgian-revival house and 16-acre formal garden to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

View towards the pool house in the garden at Filoli


Mrs. Roth was a huge fan of camellias. From 1940 through 1970, she planted hundreds of the winter-flowering shrubs on her property. She purchased so many, in fact, that her gardener was said to have pleaded, ‘No more camellias!’

To which she responded by purchasing even more and ‘hiding’ them in other parts of the garden.

Camellia japonica 'Gigantea'

C. japonica ‘Gigantea’

Today we are all the beneficiaries of Roth’s passion for these beautiful evergreen shrubs. And, early winter is the best time to appreciate her extensive collection. Last week, we visited Filoli for a tour with camellia specialist Betsy Shelton. Our backstage look provided us with a new-found respect for and understanding of these stunning cold weather bloomers.


The most remarkable thing about camellias is undoubtedly the flowers. There are six classic shapes. These include single, semi-double, anemone-form, peony-form, rose-form double and formal double.  Semi-doubles make up the vast majority of camellia flowers.

The six classic camellia shapes

A fun fact about camellias is that they are one of only a few plants that flower when they’re dormant; that is, from late fall to early spring. This runs counter intuitive to what we normally expect from our flowering plants that ‘go to sleep’ after they finish blooming. According to Shelton, the best time to purchase and plant a camellia is during this dormant stage, or when the plant is in full flower.

Camellia saluenensis


According to the International Camellia Society, the camellia genus today includes over 260 species. Among them, the two most widely used in the home garden are sasanqua and japonica. There are key differences between the two.

Camellia sasanquas range in height from 4 to 10 feet. The shrubs have a round or oval shape with open branching and glossy green foliage. Sasanquas produce fragrant, mostly single or semi-double pink or white ruffled flowers that bloom from late fall to early winter.

A distinctive characteristic of sasanquas is that when they drop their flowers, the petals break apart in a process known as ‘shattering.’

Camellia sasanqua ‘Jean May’

Camellia japonicas have a pyramidal shape and densely-packed branches. Generally larger than sasanquas, they range in height from 10 to 15 feet. Their leathery, dark green leaves are roughly double the size of sasanquas and measure around 4 inches.

Japonicas bloom later than sasanquas. Their large white, pink or red flowers range in shape from single cups to full double blooms. Unlike sasanquas, when japonicas drop their flowers, the petals remain intact.

Camellia japonica ‘Ville de Nantes Red’

Japanese camellias are also hardier than sasanquas and have been known to live for a century or more. At Filoli, a matching pair of C. japonica ‘Lady Clare’ are believed to be approaching 100 years old.

Filoli’s 100-year-old C. Japonica ‘Lady Clare’ 

Notice how the blossoms that have dropped are intact, a key feature of Japanese camellias.


Camellia hiemalis is a lesser known species that blooms from late fall into winter. It is often confused with C. sasanqua. The long-lived shrub has a wide branching habit, dark green glossy leaves and small pink, rosy red or white flowers. Some cultivars have scented blooms.

C. hiemalis ‘Shishigashira’

Another rare variety found in abundance at Filoli is the large-flowered Camellia reticulata. Loosely branched, it can grow up to 35 feet or more. Reticulatas produce enormous semi-double to peony-form flowers in soft to deep pink (and less often in white). The species flowers from late winter to mid spring.

C. reticulata ‘Shizitou’


According to Shelton, camellias need the following 6 things to keep them healthy:

  1. Protection from sun
  2. Protection from wind
  3. Loose soil with good drainage
  4. Acidic soil
  5. Evenly moist soil (Shelton compared it to a damp sponge)
  6. Mulch. Mulch helps to protect the root crown and keep the soil moist. Filoli mulches with the shredded leaves of the large oak trees that grow throughout the garden.

C. japonica ‘Pauline Winchester’

TO NOTE: Most of the camellia’s roots are located at or just below the soil level. And they need air to remain healthy. For this reason, camellias DO NOT like to be planted deep. Shelton advises planting them just above soil level to allow for settling. And take care not to plant anything underneath the shrubs, including bedding plants that may compete with or disturb the root system.

C. japonica ‘Alba Plena’

Feed your shrubs right after they finish blooming. This is also the best time to prune them. Camellias bloom on new wood, so waiting any longer to prune risks removing next year’s flowers.


Camellias provide the home landscaper with a variety of options. Following are some of the more typical approaches:

  1. Let them grow. Leave them alone and many species will grow into small trees. The one problem is that since camellias bloom on new growth, blossoms may become too high to see. 

White camellias blooming high up in the tree

  1. Take the collector’s approach. Train different species side-by-side to stagger periods of bloom and highlight variations in foliage. Below, a hedge, composed of both sasanqua and japonica species.

A tapestry hedge composed of sasanqua and japonica species 

  1. Prune as a specimen. Highlight the individual plant by selective pruning. This method is especially effective when using a camellia shrub as a marker at a turning point in the garden. Two types of pruning are the most common: open (also known as ‘airy’) and tight.

A camellia pruned as a specimen

It’s time to get out and smell the camellias! Want to learn more about the different varieties? Click here for Wilson Bros Gardens, a great photo reference and source for buying plants on line. Or, to learn more about Filoli, click here for


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