Sasanqua Camellias: Quiet Beauties of the Fall & Winter Garden

The blooms of sasanqua Camellias are an unexpected delight in the late-fall.  Photo: Aleks Monk.

The blooms of sasanqua Camellias are an unexpected delight in the late-fall.  Photo: Aleks Monk.

In fall and winter, nine “sasanqua” Camellias (Camellia sasanqua) grace our Seattle Japanese Garden with their quiet beauty.  Among them are several cultivars (cultivated varieties/named forms) as well as species plants.  They’re less well-known than the spring-blooming species, Camellia japonica, and their blooms are usually smaller and not as showy.  However, their habit is more delicate and slender, and many have fragrant flowers.  In Japan, sasanquas and their flowers are viewed as more graceful and refined than the “japonicas.”  Traditionally, they’re not considered to be Camellias at all, and are known as sazanka – that is, “plum-flowered tea.”

Camellia sasanqua is native to China and Japan.  The “wild” species grows in southern Shikoku, Kyushu and other islands as far south as Okinawa, in a more limited range than that of C. japonica.  It’s found primarily near the coast and in low-elevation evergreen forests, but it also grows at higher elevations in association with azaleas and hollies.  Some named forms are grouped with “sasanquas” but their botanical names refer to one of two other species – C. hiemalis and C. vernalis.  This is a technicality that can be ignored:  the three species are closely related, and some experts consider the latter two to be ancient, naturally-occurring hybrids with C. sasanqua in their parentage.

C. sasanqua  blooms in fall or early winter, depending upon the cultivar or the individual species plant. Flowers are usually single, white and 1.5-3 inches wide. Most often, they consist of 5 or 6 petals, which are frequently fluted or ruffled.  Some cultivars have semi-double and/or pink flowers.  In their center is a broad mass of yellow stamens.  Blooms drop cleanly when spent, so the plants maintain their attractive appearance without time-consuming “dead-heading” (removing the spent flowers by hand).  The fruit capsules are rounded, becoming brown and woody when ripe.

The habit of Camellia sasanqua is more graceful and open than that of the “japonica” Camellias. Its narrow, tapered, less “leathery” leaves are evergreen, a lustrous dark green, and finely toothed.  Its habit is upright, with fine, twiggy growth.  It usually grows quickly when young, but at maturity it’s generally smaller (about 15 feet tall) than C. japonica.  Hardy to about 5 degrees F. (U.S.D.A. Zone 7), it nevertheless needs careful siting in cooler climates, such as the Pacific Northwest.  It does best in moist, fertile, well-drained soils – and in order to flower successfully, requires a warm, sheltered location, with at least partial sun.  It takes well to pruning, and is very useful for hedges and for espalier (training the branches of a tree or shrub to grow flat against a wall or lattice).

Its history of cultivation in Japan is ancient, although cultivation was initially for practical, not decorative, purposes.  By the 14th century, ornamental cultivars were prized.  Ancient trees in Kyoto gardens are estimated to be over 400 years old.

By the 19th century, cultivation of “sasanquas” had spread to Great Britain, the United States, and the warmer areas of Europe, Australia and New Zealand.  However, the number of “japonica” cultivars that have been developed (over 10,000) far exceeds the number of “sasanquas” (cultivars numbering only in the hundreds).

A related species, Camellia oleifera (Tea Oil Camellia or Oil-seed Camellia) also blooms in fall or early winter.  Our garden has one plant, located on the east side of the garden, just south of the original gate.  C. oleifera is native to China, where it’s widely distributed.  This species is cultivated extensively for its seed oil, which is used in cooking, cosmetics and as a lubricant.  Hardy to USDA Zone 6 (-10 to 0 degrees F.), it’s been used in the breeding of extra-cold-hardy hybrids – including the Ackerman Hybrids developed by Dr. William Ackerman at the U.S. National Arboretum.  Another fall-blooming species in our garden is Camellia sinensis (Tea Plant), the species used in the production of tea.  It’s variable in form, and has small, fragrant, single flowers – usually white, but occasionally pink.  A very young plant is located here in Area B, just inside the entrance gate.

‘Tago-no-tsuki’ is an elegant presence at the original entry to the garden. Photo: Aleks Monk.

‘Tago-no-tsuki’ is an elegant presence at the original entry to the garden. Photo: Aleks Monk.

One of the most attractive sasanqua cultivars in our garden is Camellia sasanqua ‘Tago-no-tsuki,’ located just north of the original gate.  Its name means “Moon on Tago Bay,” or “Tago Moon.”  At maturity, it becomes a small tree of about 18 feet.

Randall Hitchin, Special Projects Manager of the Washington Park Arboretum, where this cultivar is also planted, praises ‘Tago-no-tsuki’ for its “big, white, semi-double flowers with petals that look like crumpled satin,” and its light but pleasing fragrance.  We appreciate this plant in our Japanese Garden for the subtle beauty of its late-season flowers – a beauty at once refined and ephemeral.

Corinne Kennedy is a guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden’s blog.