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 winter-blooming 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 lush-petaled blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli Gardens 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 his father’s mining company, Empire Mine, and founder of the Greystone Cellars in Napa Valley. The unusual name, Filoli, was derived from the first two letters of each of the three parts of Bourn’s personal credo:

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

At Filoli, they certainly knew how to live a good life. Under the Bourn’s care, the property became one of the best-known examples of the Golden Age of American garden design; an era marked by grand, private gardens and the illustrious families who built them.

Mr. William Bowers Bourn II

Following the death of the Bourns (who were buried on the grounds), the estate passed to Mr. and Mrs. William Roth, owners of the Matson Navigation Company. Under their care, the English Renaissance-style 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

A love for camellias

Mrs. Roth (named Lurline after the Matson Navigation Company’s first ship), was a huge fan of camellias. She bought them whenever and wherever she could and brought them back to Filoli. During the 1940’s to 1970’s she planted a vast amount 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 more when he went on vacation and ‘hiding’ them in other areas of the garden.

Camillea japonica ‘Gigantea’

Today we are all the beneficiaries of Roth’s particular passion for these beautiful evergreen shrubs. And, early winter is the best time to appreciate her expansive collection. Last week, we visited Filoli for a tour of the grounds given by camellia specialist Betsy Shelton. We all agreed that 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 first and foremost the flowers. There are six classic camellia shapes: single, semi-double, anemone-form, rose-form double and formal double.

The six classic camellia shapes

Single, semi-double and anemone forms are primarily flat, while peony and rose forms are even and symmetrical. The big difference between the rose-form double and formal double blooms is that in the formal double you can’t see the stamens. Semi-doubles, however, make up the vast majority of camellia flowers.

FUN FACT: Camellias bloom when they’re dormant

Here’s a little known fact Shelton shared with us:  camellias are one of only a few plants that flower when they’re dormant; that is, from early winter to spring. This runs counter intuitive to what we normally expect from our flowering plants, which ‘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 they are in full flower.

Camellia saluenensis

Camellias are the source of tea

Camellias are native to Asia, where they grow naturally as understory shrubs or small trees on forest slopes. For thousands of years, they were grown primarily for tea. Camellia sinensis is the species source of black, green and white caffeinated teas.

Camellia sinensis, whose leaves and buds are used to make tea

During Victorian times, flowering camellias were a common indoor plant kept mainly in glasshouses (due to their tropical origins). But the plants enjoyed a real surge in popularity in the 1940s, when people discovered they could flourish outside. This led to the development of hundreds of new varieties.


According to the International Camellia Society, the camellia genus today includes over 260 species and about 20,000 ornamental varieties. Among them, the two most common ones available for the home garden are sasanqua and japonica. There are key differences between the two.

Camellia sasanqua ranges in height from 4 to 10 feet and has a round or oval shape with open branching. Its oval-shaped glossy, deep green leaves, frame fragrant, mostly single or semi-double ruffled white or pink blooms that appear in late fall to early winter. When sasanqua camellias drop their flowers, the petals break apart in a process known as ‘shattering.’

Camellia sasanqua ‘Jean May’

Camellias japonica has a pyramidal shape with densely-packed branches. It is generally larger than the sasanqua, ranging in size from 10 to 15 feet. Its leathery, dark green oval leaves are much larger, too, measuring in at roughly 4”, or double the size of sasanquas. Japanese camellias bloom later than sasanquas and bear larger flowers in bright white, pink and darkest red that range in shape from single cups to full double blooms. When Japanese camellias drop their flowers, they remain intact.

Camellia japonica ‘Ville de Nantes Red’

Japanese camellias are hardier than sasanquas, and have been known to live for over a century. At Filoli, a symmetrical pair of Camellia japonica ‘Lady Clare’, planted on either side of the garden house (below), are believed to be approaching 100 years old.

Filoli’s 100-year-old Camellia japonica ‘Lady Clare’ 

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

Camellia hiemalis, also known as Snow camellia, is a less common species that blooms from late fall into winter. It is often confused with camellia sasanqua. The slow growing, 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.

Mrs. Roth grouped a number of the more unusual varieties in an area of the garden she dubbed Camellia Island. We spied this beautiful, low-growing camellia hiemalis called Shishigashira.

Camellia hiemalis ‘Shishigashira’

The large-flowered Camellia reticulata is another lesser-known species that can be found at Filoli. The loosely branched shrub or small tree is the tallest of the species and can grow up to 35 feet or more. Camellia reticulata produces enormous semi-double to peony form flowers in soft to deep pink and less often in white. Blooms are located at the branch tips. It flowers late in the season, from late winter to mid spring.

Camellia reticulata ‘Shizitou’


Camellias need these 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 are dotted throughout the garden.

Camellia japonica ‘Pauline Winchester’

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

Camellia japonica ‘Alba Plena’

Feed camellias right after they finish blooming, when they begin their growth spurt. 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. You can let them grow, in which case many species will become small trees. Only problem is that camellias bloom on new growth, so the blossoms tend to be harder 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 camellias sasanqua and japonica.

A tapestry hedge composed of sasanqua and Japanese camellias

  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 or ‘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 camellias on line. Or, to learn more about Filoli, click here for

2 thoughts on “Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

  1. This is fabulous. And thank you for this informative post about caring for these beautiful plants that give so much. Growing up my mother had a big camellia plant on the front porch in a huge planter. Your post brought back nice memories.

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