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Pro tips on floating camellias in water, a Southern cool-weather tradition

Pro tips on floating camellias in water, a Southern cool-weather tradition
December 2020

Display ideas perfect for holiday entertaining

Blue-and-white china offsets pink petals

‘Yuletide’, ‘White Dove’, and countless more camellias are in bloom this month, and as they dress the landscape in festive red, white, and pink, they also take their customary places on tables around town. “Floating camellias in bowls of water is a lovely tradition,” says Charleston garden editor Joan McDonald. “It’s the best way to highlight the convex-shaped flowers.”

Here, McDonald shares display ideas perfect for holiday entertaining, plus tips on achieving the longest-lasting arrangements. 

Select Your Vessel

Create the classic look with a shallow bowl, or get creative with repurposed tableware of all sorts

  • For a modern, minimalist aesthetic, turn to stemless wine glasses. “Place one bloom in each glass and run them down the center of a table or along a sideboard, with votives intermingled,” suggests McDonald.
  • Get nostalgic. Vintage blue-and-white china, hobnail milk glass, and other family pieces evoke memories and spark conversation.
  • Crystal instantly elevates a display. Croghan’s Jewel Box sells a “Charleston Camellia Bowl” ($65) that’s ideal for three to five flowers.
  • Raise a terrarium bowl atop a cake stand for a table centerpiece. “You’ll have a floral arrangement fully in the round, with water’s magnifying effect adding to the appeal,” McDonald notes.

Display Fresh Blooms

Follow these practices to keep blossoms looking lush for three to four days

  • Harvest camellias in the morning, selecting flowers that are new but fully open. Aim to leave four to five inches of stem. 
  • If you aren’t arranging immediately, place the stems into water with floral preservative.
  • Mix water with a little kitchen soap and use the solution to wipe any leaves clean.
  • Just before arranging, hold each stem under water and cut it at an angle.
  • Add the blooms to a clean vessel filled with water and preservative. Change the water every other day, trimming the ends of the stems each time. 

Croghan’s “Charleston Camellia Bowl” amplifies the blooms’ elegance.

Shop Local Cultivars

It’s common knowledge that America’s oldest and largest collection of camellias—dating to the 1840s—is at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (3550 Ashley River Road). But did you know that over the decades, Magnolia has created about 140 of its own cultivars? “And this fall, we began selling 50 of them to the public,” says Kate White, who heads the horticulture department and manages the Gilliard Garden Center. 

Shop the inaugural collection—plus 175 cultivars from additional growers—at Magnolia’s Yuletide on the Ashley holiday market and craft fair on December 12 and 13. All the details are available at