By mid-May, the leafy canopy of forest trees means dense shade for the plants on the forest floor. For most wildflowers, this begins a season of downtime. Plants that bloomed in March and April sunlight unobstructed by leaves are now finishing up their seed-making and preparing for a long, hot summer. But this season of deep shade is prime time for the silky camellia (Stewartia malacodendron), as its pure white flowers light up the darkened woodland.
The silky camellia blooms in late spring and early summer with two to three-inch white flowers that, as its name suggests, have the sheen and gentle folds of a piece of fine silk. What makes this flower particularly striking is its central cluster of purple and blue stamens that look like a fireworks display.
The silky camellia is a southeastern native ranging from Texas to Virginia. This small tree grows to 15 feet tall, prefers shady, moist conditions and is often found growing alongside wooded stream banks and on rich hillsides.
When planted in the deciduous shade of oaks, hickories and tulip poplars, silky camellias have a loose, spreading habit with lots of low, lateral branches that provide interesting structure to the woodland landscape. Plant them in morning sun with protection from the afternoon sun and they develop into a shorter, stockier, more vase-shaped tree. The extra sun also means more and larger flowers. For the best growth and flowering, plant your silky camellia in bright light. Keep it well-watered and feed it regularly with Miracle-Gro® Water Soluble Azalea, Camellia, Rhododendron Plant Food.
When choosing a site in your wooded landscape for a silky, remember their spectacular flowers are held on the top of the branches. Give it a place below your deck or balcony where you can look down on its stunning, late-season display.
You can find young silky camellia trees at specialty nurseries and native plant sales.