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Camellias as tough as they are beautiful

What's in a plant's name? Everything.

I'd like to introduce you to "Professor Sargent," my first camellia, purchased more than 20 years ago. Some camellias, like camellia sasanqua, will tolerate either sun or shade. Others, like camellia japonica, prefer only shade. Professor Sargent is the latter, meaning he thrives away from sunlight.

Over two decades, Professor Sargent could be described with a single word: venerable. His name was spoken by my first garden mentor, Margaret Moseley, now 92. Something about the tone of her voice let me know that this was a plant worth keeping, accept no substitutes.

With the serendipity of a beginner, I planted mine by a bank of windows I gaze out each morning and evening. I can imagine no better window treatment. His foliage is an elegant dark green and stays on all year. Songbirds adore his cover and protection while foraging. Who needs binoculars when the birds are this close?

Like all camellias, Professor Sargent is extremely drought tolerant once established. He isn't a super fast grower, but if you want to speed that up a little, prepare the soil with granite grit, add a 1-inch layer of rotted compost annually and make sure he's watered properly during that first year.

Aside from the all-season veneration of Professor Sargent, there are also winter explosions of color. This plant begins blooming at Christmas and won't stop until the end of March. The flowers are the deepest red stuffed with so many petals they look like a peony. Imagine red peony-type blossoms decorating a coat of dark green leaves all winter long.

The blossoms stay faithful regardless of low temperatures, rain, snow or ice. If you want to bring the blossoms inside, it's best to hammer the woody stem at the bottom so it can uptake water from the vase. But I prefer the simpler, old-fashioned method of floating the blossoms in a large, clear glass bowl of water.

Visiting a plantation outside of Charleston, S.C., I noticed the camellias weren't large evergreen shrubs; they were small trees with multiple, beautiful trunks, bare of foliage at the bottom. The deer were a problem at the plantation and had eaten as high as they could reach. No matter the source, I was pleased to learn a new way to prune. My garden is tiny, and I was happy to prune Professor Sargent into a small tree, gaining more space to plant perennials.

Hydrangeas especially like to be planted with Professor Sargent because they are at their most stick-like dormant while he is putting on a red and green extravaganza.

It's a thrill to pass-along something that will bring you consistent pleasure and beauty. This is one shrub that will make you look like you know everything about landscaping, even if you're just beginning.

Stone Mountain resident Tara Dillard designs, installs and writes about gardens. E-mail her at taradillard@agardenview.biz.