The silky camellia is one of the rarest small trees in East Texas, known from only a short stretch along Little Cow creek near Burkeville, Texas. This multi-branched, deciduous shrub or small tree to twenty or thirty feet is a show-stopper in bloom. The showy three-inch flowers have five white obovate petals with purple filaments and bluish anthers and generally appear in late April to early May.
In the southeastern U.S., the species is found as an understory plant of rich wooded bluffs, ravine slopes and creek banks of scattered localities in southwest Georgia, the Florida panhandle, and southern Alabama. It is known to occur in Arkansas and in the east as far north as Virginia. There are thirteen known sites in Louisiana. While always uncommon throughout its range, the species is not on any endangered list. However, in Texas, the silky camellia must be considered in danger of extirpation from the state and deserves perpetual stewardship for that reason alone. The SFA Mast Arboretum has been working with the species since the late 1980’s and has found the plant more than just a bit difficult. The species has been a slow grower and hard to propagate. Seed propagation is frustrating and unpredictable; seedlings damp off easily. Asexual propagation efforts generally meet with failure. Rooted cuttings often fail to survive their first winter; some propagators suggest long days to encourage continued growth and to carry liners in the greenhouse the first winter. The plant has a reputation for being short-lived and finicky as to site tolerance. This is not a candidate for the mass market nurseryman. However, for that southern gardener willing to gamble and work with the plant, few will deny that a properly sited mature specimen in bloom is one of the most beautiful natives of the south.