Imagine spending life as Cleopatra's sister. Each morning, you don the most exquisite gown and have your hair coiffed and your nails gilded, yet no one ever notices. That's how it is to be a sasanqua. Though it's one of the classic plants that define our region and its beauty can dominate autumn, to those enamored with the ostentatious flowers of its winter- and spring-blooming sibling, a sasanqua will always be "the other camellia."
What an injustice to a shrub that has been cultivated in its native Japan since the 14th century and in the American South for nearly 200 years.Camellia sasanqua may lack the grapefruit-size blooms of Camellia japonica, but in many respects, it's a better plant for your garden.
Smaller, Easier, More Versatile
Let's start with size. The common camellia (C. japonica) begins as a shrub but usually ends up as a tree, 15 to 25 feet high and wide. So it takes up a lot of space--not exactly the perfect choice for planting under eaves and windows or between the sidewalk and curb. A mature sasanqua is smaller. Upright selections can grow 10 to 12 feet high and wide. Mounding types, popularly called dwarf sasanquas, grow only 2 to 5 feet tall and wide. Therefore, when you plant one of these, you won't have to worry that your house with a camellia out front will morph into a camellia with a house in back.
Now examine the foliage. A sasanqua's leaves are simply beautiful, with many types emerging coppery-bronze and maturing to glossy, deep green. These leaves are about half the size of a common camellia's and much less coarse. "Sasanquas have this delicate quality about them, almost like a child," notes landscape architect Steve Dudash of DesignWorks in Charleston, South Carolina. "Their leaves aren't big and thick like those of a (common) camellia."
Sasanquas also boast a laxity, grace, and airiness unmatched by common camellias. In the landscape, a common camellia looks as dense as a bowling ball and as stiff as a guard at Buckingham Palace. But a sasanqua's branches reach up and out, leaving spaces in between, and its stems are much more pliable. Combine smaller size and beautiful foliage with a graceful form, and you wind up with a plant you can use in many different ways.
Sue and Reid Crider of Vestavia Hills, Alabama, know this well. In 1972, their family began training a pair of 'Mine-No-Yuki' (aka 'White Doves') sasanquas to grow flat against a brick wall--an art known as espalier. They carefully pruned each spring and summer to limit size and also tied stray branches to the wall. Now a flurry of white blossoms powder the foliage for weeks each fall. Neighbors take notice. "When people find out where we live, they'll say, 'Oh, you live at the house with the white camellias,' " says Reid.
If espalier isn't your style, though, relax--sasanquas are extremely versatile. For example, dwarf types are wonderful for foundation plantings, berms, low borders, or massing at the foot of taller plants, such as glossy privet (Ligustrum lucidum). Upright forms can be clipped into hedges, used for tall screens, or pruned into tree form for use in courtyards, corner plantings, small yards, and formal beds.
Color and Fragrance Too
Depending on the selection and where you live, sasanquas can bloom any time from late summer through autumn and into winter. (A personal favorite, red-flowered 'Yuletide,' blooms around Christmastime.) Flowers may be single, semidouble, or double, usually with a central burst of bright yellow stamens. Some exude a pleasant tea scent--not surprising, as sasanqua is closely related to the tea plant (C. sinensis). Colors range from cherry red to rose to shell pink to fairest white. Individual flowers live but a short time, shattering into a storm of falling petals. Abundant new flowers soon replace them, though, and the carpet of petals at the foot of the shrubs only adds to the spectacle.
Suited to all areas except the Tropical South, sasanquas are a cinch to grow. They love summer heat and can take full sun or light shade. Give them moist, acid, well-drained soil that contains plenty of organic matter. They're not quite as cold hardy as common camellias, though. In the Upper South, plant them in places sheltered from winter wind and sun, or keep them in pots in cool greenhouses over winter.
Sasanquas may lack the fame of common camellias, but you certainly couldn't call them weak sisters. Plant these classic beauties in your garden, and I guarantee that people will notice.
This article is from the November 2002 issue of Southern Living.