Cool Season Plants – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

Many of my readers have expressed an interest in a few plants that can withstand the cool weather this fall and winter will bring. Well, I have a few ideas of plants that I think you will like and be able to use in your landscape. These plants will not mind any of the cool weather and in fact can withstand freezing temperatures. The plants I want to talk about today are the Tea Olive (Osmanthus fragrans), the Camellia (Camellia japonica), and for those of you that like a small tree with fragrant blossoms, the Loblolly Bay(Gordonia lasianthus). All of these plants would be welcomed in any cool season garden and their colors and fragrances will give you pleasure again and again. This week I will discuss these plants and their use in the landscape.

           I found my first Tea Olive plant at the BokTower Gardensin Central Florida. I was not really looking for the plant but rather I was drawn to the plant because of its fragrance. Tea Olive produces extremely small white flowers along the stems of the plant. If you did not know what to look for you may not even see the plant. This is what had happened to me when I chance encountered this specimen. The fragrance is what catches you by surprise. The sweet smell of the blossoms beckoned me and as I searched for the source I finally found the plants. Three of the plants had been growing in a semi-circle behind a row of chenille plants. I had to ask a worker at the gardens what the name of the plant was and he told me that it was a Tea Olive.

            Tea Olive grows upright and open. Little or no care is needed for these plants as growth is slow but steady. Flowers are produced approximately three times per year on both current and old growth parts of the plant. I understand that the further north this plant is grown the taller the plant will become. I have grown this plant for almost twenty years and the tallest plants in my collection are a mere seven to eight feet in height. As noted above I rarely prune the plant but when I do I merely prune the tips of the plants to give them a consistent height. Because of this slow growth rate and open structure, do not look to make this a hedge plant but rather use this plant close to your structure and plant your colorful plants in front of them. Tea Olive will make a nice foundation plant and when it goes into bloom the fragrance will delight you for three to four weeks at a time.

            Camellias are another plant I like to use in cool weather gardens and just to clarify, cool weather gardens are northern exposure gardens in areas that occasionally get frosts and freezes. In the case of Camellias, these plants are happy during the cooler weather and do not mind if you get several freezes. I like to plant my camellias in an area which gets morning sun and filtered afternoon light. Plantings grown beneath pine trees actually are better for the camellias as they enjoy the acidity given off by the pine needles.

            Gardeners in central Floridaplant camellias for their beautiful blossoms which appear in the winter. Camellias are one of the few plants that flower at this time so if you are looking for color in your garden during the winter, the camellia may be right for you. Flowers come in many sizes and shapes from two inches to five inches in size including single and double flowers. Although the blossoms do not give off a fragrance, their sheer beauty gives any garden a burst of color. Many homeowners will pick the blossoms and float them in bowls to adorn their living quarters. These blossoms come in hundreds of colors but there are a few varieties which tend to do better in our area.

            The cultivars I like to plant and have grown well in central Florida are the “Don Mac, Mathotiana Rubra, Laura Walker, and Rosea Plena. If a nursery does not carry these varieties, ask them to order them for you. Other varieties may do well in this area but I have found many varieties which grow fine but tend not to bloom because of early warm spring temperatures which cause the blooms to “bull nose”. Bull nose is a term given to camellia flowers which do not open and fall from the plant. If you stick with the varieties I have given you your plants should bloom just fine.

            Another good thing about camellias is the fact that these plants are slow growers which require only modest pruning or shaping. Once per year you may need to prune an individual branch which is growing out of place. Pruning is done only after the bloom season has been completed. If you prune at the wrong time of year your plants may not bloom properly in the winter. Over time, camellias can achieve a height of fifteen feet or more. However, for most homeowners this is a rare occurrence and will take many years. 

            Loblolly Bay trees look similar to a bay tree because of their long waxy leaves and stately appearance. Growing commonly in Florida alongside the roads and drainage canals, Loblolly Bay trees can reach heights of thirty to fifty feet although the width of these trees is only six to ten feet. The further north you go in Floridathe larger the trees become. In our area most of these trees are in the eight to fifteen feet range with six foot widths. The attractive glossy leaves give way to fragrant showy white flowers with yellow centers measuring up to three inches across. Blooming seasons range from spring through summer and trees do best when planted in areas where rainfall acuminates or near lakes or ponds.

            Not all nurseries carry this specimen tree but they are easily found on the internet. Because this tree is not a large tree, homeowners should be able to find a spot in the landscape this tree will flourish. Be sure to give the tree plenty of water and do not worry about any pests. When the cool weather arrives in central Floridathis tree will have no problem so no need to cover.
This past week has been great for working in the garden. I am hoping we will have at least a little cool season to make gardening even more enjoyable. The plants I have mentioned this week will give you additional choices to use in the garden and still give you color. Best of all, these are all cold hardy plants and require minimum maintenance. Keep you garden beautiful and remember, without plants we would not be here.

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