Six on Saturday: Camellias for a Winter Butterfly

A friend wrote to say that she is fostering a black swallowtail butterfly that emerged way too early. A mutual friend had called a few days earlier, surprised that it had appeared on a fern overwintering indoors. Knowing that our friend is set up to care for early emergent butterflies, a butterfly rescue, if you will, she called to ask whether it could be rescued. But, Miss Flutter has thus far not wanted to eat any of the standard rescue fare offered to her; read, Gatorade or a similar sugary drink.

And so of course I offered up some fresh Camellia flowers. Two of my C. sasanquas, that began their season in October, continue pushing out buds and those buds continue to open into a smaller, darker shadow of their once glorious blossoms. I look at them and see the toll that our recent cold and gloomy weather is taking on their exuberance. But they bloom on.

Our endless autumn and mild December and January have our Camellias a bit confused. C. Yuletide started blooming a few weeks earlier than usual, in early November, and there are still a few flowers open on its deep, emerald boughs.

Our earliest C. japonica began blooming with delicate pink, fully double confections before Christmas, as did a few of our other japonicas. It was planted years before we moved to this garden and has grown into a small tree. It is likely more than a dozen feet tall. Its blossoms are often marred by a late cold snap, and its buds showed a touch of brown on the edges of its petals when I examined them today.

No matter, I clipped a few short stems with buds on their way to opening to send home to the swallowtail. Butterflies and other pollinators have more trouble finding nectar in big, fluffy double blossoms, but I sent an assortment of buds and blossoms so she could have her choice.

All of our C. japonicas have buds now in various stages of readiness to open. It is still very early for most. The roller coaster weather here is cruel to early bloomers, enticing them with a day or two of warmth before punishing them with a night or two in the 20s, and perhaps something frozen to cling to vulnerable petals and leaves.

We are at the northern edge of the zone for many types of Camellias. I fell in love with Camellias at the Norfolk Botanical Garden and my grandmother’s home when I was a child. I wondered in awe at the huge, rose like scarlet flowers on the shrub by her front porch blooming in December when we visited for Christmas. How was it possible to still have such tender flowers so late in the season?

This Camellia sasanqua reminds me of those that grew by my grandmother’s porch.

And still, now, I can’t get enough of them. Every year I buy one or two more, grow it on in a large pot for a year or more, and then find a spot for it in the garden. We live a bit further north and further inland from that Zone 8 outpost where Camellias of all types thrive. Even so, other than the critters who want to gnosh their roots (voles) or leaves (deer), our Camellias grow happily in this garden.

Our heavy clay soil tends towards begin acidic, and we have added compost, mulch, and fallen leaves to improve it where the Camellias grow. They grow in dappled sunlight from the mature trees all around, and in the shelter of other large shrubs that break the wind. Camellias are under story shrubs and appreciate a bit of shade and shelter. Although I can’t grow them under pines or other large conifers here, they seem happy enough with our oaks and maples.

Camellias give the garden a bit of structure and offer a dark green back drop for other flowers during the warm months of the year. It is only as the herbaceous plants in the garden begins dying back in autumn that those first delicious flowers unfold. Fall brings lots of white flowers, punctuated with pink and then red. Camellia sasanqua flowers always feel more delicate and ephemeral to me than their sturdier C. japonica cousins, which bloom in late winter and early spring.

I ventured into starting Camellias from seed for the first time this fall. With a bit of luck, I hope to add a few C. sinensis shrubs to the garden a few years on. Their seeds still slumber in their seed tray, wrapped against the squirrels, tucked into a sheltered corner of our deck. The C. sasanqua seeds began germinating only a few weeks into their stratification. They are growing on in little pots.

Camellia seedlings

It pays to do your homework, always. I ordered William Ackerman’s book, Beyond the Camellia Belt: Breeding, Propagating, and Growing Cold-Hardy Camellias. And in studying Ackerman’s instructions for managing seedlings, I learned about the prodigious root systems Camellias produce before they are even a couple of inches tall. I potted my germinated seeds into tiny 1″-1.5″ pots initially, and now that the second set of leaves have emerged on some of the seedlings, I need to pot those youngsters up into something deeper to allow the roots room to develop.

While my friend and I walked around our upper garden today, looking for flowers for her butterfly, I snipped and clipped stems from a budding Forsythia, a Pieris japonica, and four different Camellia shrubs. I told her that she needed a variety of temptations to coax the little butterfly to such an early breakfast. After all, what do you feed an emerging butterfly who has come into the world months ahead of schedule?

And now I’m waiting for a report of whether these winter flowers tempted our Miss Flutter, or not. I’m hoping for the best, of course, and know my friend will buy a few stems of florist flowers from the grocery store if these should fail to please.

When you are eating them with your winter weary eyes, and not a slim proboscis, winter flowers please without fail. I hope walkers on our street are as delighted with our winter Camellias as I was with that red Camellia that grew by my grandmother’s porch those many years ago. What exuberant tenacity they show! They offer hope and promise better days yet to come.

Many thanks to Jim Stephens for sharing his site about growing Camellias, and to the Propagator for hosting Six on Saturday each week. Please visit them to see what is cropping up in their gardens this week.



    • That particular Camellia was here when we came to this garden, and it delights us all over again when it first blooms in October. I have never learned its name, but it is one of our favorites, too. I love the blush of pink on the petals, which grows more pronounced as the weather cools. Thanks for visiting, -WG


  1. Such a lovely tale of the butterfly. I hope it finds something nice to eat until the outside world is ready for it.
    Is the butterfly very shy, or does it fly around and not worry about everyone?


    • Hand raised butterflies can be very friendly. They get used to being around the person who feeds them, like other animals. This one is living in a special butterfly hamper. There is a kitten in the household, so perhaps not a great idea to allow the butterfly to fly around freely….. Thanks for visiting, Scott

      Liked by 1 person

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