Residents of North Florida are no doubt familiar with camellias, the large, glossy-green-leaved shrub that flowers during the cooler seasons. Common varieties include Camellia sasanqua, which blooms from October through December (depending on variety), and Camellia japonica, which blooms January through March. Both make huge, showy blossoms that demand attention, with forms that range from wild-rose-like to stunning geometric formal patterns.
The popularity of these shrubs is not in doubt, but a cousin of theirs takes the prize as one of the most popular plants in the world. Not due to its flowers: this variety of camellia does bloom, but the leaves are most interesting to humans. It is grown in dozens of countries worldwide and global production is estimated at over $17 billion worth of these leaves. The primary product made from this plant is a beverage that is consumed more than any other drink except water. It is, of course, tea.
Camellia sinensis was named by botanist Carl Linnaeus, “Camellia” to honor another botanist, Rev. Georg Kamel, who really had nothing to do with the plant at all, and “sinensis”, which means “from China”. You may be able to deduce where tea is native to.
The tea plant prefers temperatures from 65 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, doing well in zones 7-9. It can survive freezing or slightly-below-freezing temperatures, though leaves may be damaged by frost. It enjoys moist conditions, needing around 50 inches of rainfall per year. China tea (variety sinensis), which produces smaller, more serrated leaves, prefers more light than Assam types (variety assamica), which have larger, less serrated leaves. Either variety can be grown as a shrub or small tree.
Propagation may be accomplished either by seed or cuttings; cuttings are the preferred method for reproduction, as seeds must be germinated before the seed coat hardens for best results. Caring for tea plants once established involves more frequent but light fertilization, mulching, and regular scouting for pests. Camellia sinensis is susceptible to mites, thrips, scale insects, and aphids, all of which are present in large numbers in our area. Luckily, most of these problems can be solved with an application of either insecticidal soap or horticultural oil, if control is even necessary.
Once a tea plant is large enough to harvest leaves from, it is the new growth which is plucked. The top 2-3 leaves are used either fresh or fermented for a period of time before they are brewed. Green tea comes from the fresh leaves of China type tea plants, while either China or Assam types may be used to make black tea. Black tea leaves are picked, wilted or crushed, and allowed to ferment. Fermentation darkens the leaves and is halted by heating, which also serves to dry the leaves for storage.
Every so often while I am enjoying a walk through the garden, I notice a growth pattern on a plant that is just not normal. One of the more interesting patterns I see is called fasciation. This is a distortion of plant tissue that often causes flattened, curved, or the thinning of plant tissues. I recently noticed this on the stem of a Coral Porterweed in the Escambia County Demonstration Garden. The leaves were a normal shape but several inches of the stem were flattened and curved.
The distorted stem tissue of a Coral porterweed. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
So what is causing this type of growth pattern?
The most common cause of fasciation is usually some type of genetic mutation in the growing points of the plant. The other possible causes could be a physical injury to new tissues, a bacterial infection, chemical injury, or even an insect injury. Fasciation will be random in its occurrence and many gardeners may never have it occur on a plant in their yard. I have seen it on both woody and herbaceous plants in my own yard and in the demonstration gardens.
If you see a plant exhibiting this distortion of growth, you don’t need to take any action. If the growth is unsightly to you, prune out the affected plant tissue. It is probably best that you not propagate material from an affected plant just to prevent any transfer of the distortion to a new plant if the cause is genetic or from a living organism.
Last spring, we were all ready to host another Open House and Plant Sale on Mother’s Day weekend. When the realities of the pandemic became clear, we canceled the event for the safety of everyone involved. We typically have more than 500 visitors and dozens of volunteers on site. This year we are happy to announce we have adapted our annual fundraiser to a monthly learning and growing opportunity for the whole community.
Master Gardener Volunteer Jeanne Breland is growing native milkweed in her monarch exclusion fortress for a Plant with Purpose talk and sale in the spring. Previous years’ milkweed have been eaten by monarch caterpillars before the sale so Jeanne has built her fortress to get the best results. Photo by Rachel Mathes
Our Master Gardener Volunteers will be teaching Thursday evening classes on particular plant groups throughout the year in our new series: Plant with Purpose. Topics will range from milkweed to shade plants to vegetables and herbs for different seasons. Attendees can attend the talks for free and grow along with us with the purchase of a box. These boxes are modeled after community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes you can purchase from local farms. Buyers will get a variety of the plants discussed in the plant lesson that week. For example, in our first event, Growing a Pizza Garden, we will have two tomato plants, two pepper plants, and one basil plant available for $20. Throughout the year, prices and number of plants will vary depending on the topic.
We hope with this new model of presentations and plant sales will enable us to remain Covid-safe while still bringing horticulture education to the community. Classes will be held on Thursday evenings from 6-7 pm via Zoom. Register on our Eventbrite to get the Zoom link emailed to you before each talk. Plant pick up will be the following Saturday from 10 am to noon. Master Gardener Volunteers will load up your plant box in a contact-free drive thru at the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Office at 615 Paul Russell Rd.
Propagation of angel wing begonia and other plants by Joan Peloso, Master Gardener Volunteer.
Master Gardener Volunteers are already growing plants for you to purchase throughout the year. Landscape plants, herbs, vegetables, shrubs and even trees will be available later in the year. Funds raised from this series help fund our Horticulture programming. Some notable programs that will benefit from Plant with Purpose include our Demonstration Garden, 4-H Horticulture Club, the Veterans’ Garden Group at the VA Tallahassee Outpatient Clinic, and various school gardens we help support throughout Leon County.
In the last year, we have adapted many of our programs to meet virtually, and even created new ones like our Wednesday Webinar series where we explore different horticulture topics twice a month with guest speakers from around the Panhandle. While we still can’t meet in person to get down in the dirt with all of our community programs, we hope that the Plant with Purpose series will help fill the hole left by our cancelled Open House and Plant Sale. Join us for the first installment of Plant with Purpose on Thursday March 18th from 6-7pm. Pick up for purchased plant boxes will be Saturday March 20th from 10am-noon.
It’s mid-February, cloudy, and cold. It’s time to get outside and take cuttings for fruit and nut tree grafting. The cuttings that are grafted onto other trees are called scions. The trees or saplings that the scions are grafted to are called rootstocks. Grafting should be done when plants start to show signs of new growth, but for best results, scion wood should be cut in February and early March.
Straight and smooth wood with the diameter of a pencil should be selected for scions. Water sprouts that grow upright in the center of trees work well for scion wood. Scions should be cut to 12-18″ for storage. They should only need two to three buds each.
Scions ready for grafting. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County
Scions should be cut during the dormant season and refrigerated at 35-40°F until the time of grafting. If cuttings are taken in the field or far from home, then simply place them in a cooler with an ice pack until they can be refrigerated. Cuttings should be placed in a produce or zip top bag along with some damp paper towels or sphagnum moss.
It is better to be late than early when it comes to grafting. Some years it’s still cold on Easter Sunday. Generally, mid-March to early April is a good time to graft in North Florida. Whip and tongue or bench grafting are most commonly used for fruit and nut trees. This type of graft is accomplished by cutting a diagonal cut across both the scion and the rootstock, followed by a vertical cut parallel to the grain of the wood. For more information on this type of graft please visit the Grafting Fruit Trees in the Home Orchard from the University of New Hampshire Extension.
A bench graft union. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County
Achieving good bench graft unions takes skill and some practice. Some people have better success using a four-flap or banana graft technique. This type of graft is accomplished by stripping most of the bark and cambium layer from a 1.5″ section of the base of the scion and by folding the back and removing a 1.5″ section of wood from the top of the rootstock. A guide to this type of graft can be found on the Texas A&M factsheet “The Four-Flap Graft”.
Grafting is a gardening skill that can add a lot of diversity to a garden. With a little practice, patience, and knowledge any gardener can have success with grafting.