By Erin Marissa Russell & Matt Gibson
Camellias are dense evergreen Japanese shrubs with beautiful foliage. They produce bright, delicate, long-lasting flowers during the cool season. The most commonly cultivated types of camellia are C. japonica and C. sasanqua, though there are many hybrids as well, which were bred to create different colors, shapes, and other traits, such as cold hardiness. C. sinensis is cultivated commercially to create a tea that is very popular in East Asia. A blend of various Camellia species are used to produce a cooking oil that is used heavily in southern China.
Camellias were popular flowers in Japanese and Chinese gardens for ages before they were popularized in the UK, and later, in the US. Today, Camellias are grown all over the globe as ornamental plants, primarily loved for their wide array of bright and beautiful flowers. Sometimes called the Japan Rose, camellia flowers come in single, semi-double, and double forms.
Camellia plants generally grow well without much care or maintenance, but they will thrive if given their desired growing conditions, as well as properly timed pruning and appropriate fertilization. To select the right variety of camellia, pay attention to the bloom time and select plants with different blooming schedules to enjoy extended flowering periods for your camellia plants. Consider where you are planting your camellia, and try to find a cultivar that fits perfectly in the location you have in mind. With so many hybrid cultivars available, it is probable that there is a camellia that is perfect for just about every spot in the garden.
Varieties of Camellia
With over 40,000 registered varieties of camellia, there are varieties that are well-suited to almost any garden location and climate, and there are cultivars available in a wide range of flower sizes, shapes, and colors as well. Some vigorous varieties quickly grow into small trees with sturdy stems. Other, more slow-growing camellia varieties are either upright or spreading, with dense growth habits.
There are also a wide range of camellias that have growing habits that are somewhere between these two extremes. Garden centers and nurseries in your area should have a decent selection and should be able to direct you towards cultivars that are well suited to your climate.
Hybrid cultivars that have won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit include:
Cornish Snow – White single blooms that reach two and a half feet high.
Cornish Spring – Pink single blooms that reach two and a half feet high.
Francie L – Rose-pink double blooms that tower eight feet in the sky.
Freedom Bell – Red semi-double flowers that reach two and a half feet in height.
Inspiration – Rose-pink semi-double blooms that grow four feet high.
Leonard Messel – Rose-pink semi double blooms that reach four feet in height.
Royalty – Pale red semi-double blooms that grow only one foot high.
Spring Festival – Pink semi-double blooms that reach four feet in height.
Tom Knudsen – Dark red double peony flowers that grow two and a half feet high.
Tristrem Carlyon – Rose-pink double peony flowers that grow four feet high.
There are new hybrid Camellias that were bred to flourish in warm weather areas and warm tropical areas, so those that live in the upper South or the tropical South and have trouble with growing camellias can now find cultivars that will thrive in their climates. The C. japonica hybrids Alba Plena, Debutante, Professor Charles S. Sargent, Red Giant, Lady Clare, Gigantea and Mathotiana, all perform well in the tropical South, and can be grown in pots in areas with alkaline soils, such as in Miami.
There are also cold hardy species (C. oleifera, especially) that have hybrids which are known to withstand temperatures as low as negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit, with little to no damage if provided with some form of shelter from the wind and sun. Some popular cold hardy camellias are Winter’s Star (lavender-pink single flowers), Winter’s Waterlily (white double blooms in winter), Polar Ice (white anemone-like flowers), Snow Flurry (white anemone-like flowers), Winter’s Dream (semi-double pink flowers), Winter’s Charm (pink peony), and Winter’s Fire (hot pink semi-double or peony in midwinter).
There is also an April hardy series of C. japonica camellias which are named after their bloom times in the cooler, northern areas of their climate range. These April hardy varieties include April Remembered, April Dawn, April Blush, April Tryst, April Rose, and April Snow.
Growing Conditions for Camellia
The majority of camellia varieties are well suited to USDA zones seven through ten, but there are a few hybrid varieties that are hardy to zone six as well. Camellias grow best in slightly acidic soils with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. They perform poorly in soils that have a high pH level and plant growth will become stunted and leaves will likely yellow in alkaline soils. Providing a well-draining soil is essential, as camellias will not survive in wet soil conditions.
Camellias will perform better and produce fuller, more colorful blooms if grown in partial shade locations. Ideally, you can place your camellias in a location that receives full sun in the morning and dappled shade in the afternoons. Afternoon shade is important, especially for young Camellia plants, which will perform especially well when grown under tall trees or on the north side of a building, or large outdoor structure. As the shrubs mature, their thick foliage will provide shade for their roots, and they will eventually be able to adjust to more sunlight. In zones six and seven, winter shade can help eliminate cold damage.
Camellias perform very well in containers either grown outside placed on a terrace, or in a cool greenhouse environment indoors. Plant gallon-sized camellias in containers that are 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Plant five-gallon-sized camellias into containers that are 16 to 18 inches in diameter. Fill your containers with a potting mix that is made up of at least half organic material and make sure the containers have ample drainage.
How to Plant Camellia
Planting your camellias at the proper time is very important. Those in warmer climates, such as zones eight through ten, should plant in the fall, winter, or springtime, while gardeners in zones six and seven should only plant camellias in the spring so that the plants have an opportunity to produce an established root system before winter weather arrives.
When planting camellias, dig a hole in the soil that is double the width and just as deep as the root ball. Once the hole is dug, backfill the bottom two to three inches and firmly pack the soil into place. Then, gently pull the plant out of its container and position it into the center of the hole so that the root ball is two to four inches above the surface.
If planted too deeply, the shrubs will get off to a slow start. Camellias are very picky about being planted correctly, so be sure to meet these requirements precisely. Fill in the soil around the plant and create small sloping hills along the outer edges of the rootball. Take care not to cover the top of the root ball with soil.
Add a one inch layer of mulch around the plant and over the top of the root ball. Water well just after planting to help ease the transition into the new environment.
Care for Camellia
Water your camellias just after planting, and in cases of extreme drought and excessive heat. Once your camellia shrubs are established and at least three years old, they will not need much, if any manual watering. Rainfall should provide all the irrigation necessary in most cases, but if you do decide to water your camellias, make sure that the soil is draining properly.
In the springtime, provide camellias with an acid-forming fertilizer specially formulated for azalea or camellias after the blooms drop. Feed again around midsummer if you notice that their growth seems stunted or the leaves start to lose their dark green hue or become sparse.
For summer feedings, be sure to water your camellias one day before providing fertilization. Be sure to only use a fertilizer that is specifically formulated for azaleas or camellias and follow the directions on the package.
If you are growing your camellias in especially fertile soil, you may want to use a little bit less than directed, but never use more fertilizer than directed or feed your camellias if the plants look distressed or sick. Never fertilize after August, so that your camellias can enter dormancy on time. Fertilizing too late could cause the plants to have a growth spurt when they are supposed to be entering dormancy, and new growth won’t have a chance to harden off before the cold weather arrives.
Prune your plants back after flowers fade, removing any dead or weak wood and thinning out dense growth that may be impeding the blooms. Cut back lower branches to promote upright growth and cut back tops to encourage a more compact, bushy growing style.
When pruning, look for the scar that indicates where the plant was cut back at the end of the previous season’s growth and cut just above it. Cutting above this mark will force three or four new buds to grow.
How to Propagate Camellia
Camellia plants are typically propagated by cutting. To propagate, make a potting medium by mixing equal parts potting soil and perlite. Cut an empty two liter bottle in half and make a few small drainage holes in the bottom half of the bottle. Then, fill the bottom half with the potting medium. Next, cut a fresh limb from your camellia shrub and cut the limb down into several four inch cuttings. Then, remove the lower leaves of each cutting leaving only the top two leaves at the tip of each cutting.
Now, dip the end of each cutting into a rooting hormone powder and stick the cuttings into the potting medium-filled container. Next, cover the cuttings with the top of the two liter bottle and tape it into place to secure it to the bottom part of the bottle. Place the cuttings into a bright but shaded location for three months.
Once you see buds begin to form at the tip of each cutting, you can remove them gently and plant each cutting into its own individual eight inch container. Next, lightly fertilize each cutting with a fertilizer that is specially formulated for camellia or azaleas. Allow the cuttings to grow into their new pots until the planters are filled with roots. Then transplant into the ground or into a larger container.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Camellia
Bud Drop: Dropping blooms is a common problem for camellias, but if it does not occur in conjunction with the symptoms of another problem, it is likely normal. Camellias tend to produce more buds than they can support, and it’s expected to lose some before they open. Excessive bud drop may be a result of freezing weather, drought, or too much water.
Camellia Leaf Gall: The first sign of camellia leaf gall is that leaves change in shape and appearance. They may exhibit symptoms such as distortion, paleness, and a thick or fleshy appearance. Leaves slowly change color, first transforming to white, then turning brown before falling from the plant. When you notice leaves showing these signs, pick them and discard them (do not include in compost) before they have turned completely white if possible.
Camellia Petal Blight: The blossoms of camellias with petal blight turn brown quickly, then fall from the plant. The best way to beat the disease is to clean the fallen flowers from the garden and discard them (not in the compost heap), and to do the same with blossoms attached to the plant that show signs of disease. If you use mulch around your camellias and see signs of petal blight, remove the mulch that is in place and refresh it with a new layer four to five inches thick.
Tea Scale: Scale are insects that resemble bumps on plant stems because of their armored shells. Tea scale insects are either brown or white and appear on the underside of camellia leaves. Another sign of tea scale is the clear, sticky “honeydew” they secrete, which can lead to sooty mold fungus. Leaves of plants infested with scale can become discolored and turn yellow or fall from the plant. If you see scale insects on your camellias, first knock off all the visible bugs using a twig that does not have signs of disease or a clean, sterile gardening tool. You can also fight scale with horticultural oil. For more information, see our article How to Control Scale Insects [https://www.gardeningchannel.com/control-scale-insects/].
How to Harvest and Save Camellia Seeds
While camellia seeds are generally ready to collect at the beginning of fall, the timeline can vary depending on where you live and the plant variety you are growing. You will know the seeds are ready to be harvested when the pod ripens to the point that it begins to develop a small crack.
Pick the seeds by hand or use clean, sterilized gardening shears to trim the pods from the plant. Place the seeds you have collected in a brown paper bag, fold it securely, and label it with the plant variety and the date. Store the seeds in a cool, dark place until it’s time to plant them.
You can either use scarification to crack the seed coat or simply soak the seeds for 12 hours just before planting. One or the other method is recommended to increase the germination speed as well as the success rate.
Camellias are a unique, somewhat old-fashioned choice for the garden. Because of the variety of choices available, there’s almost no end to the options you have for matching or contrasting with the shade of other blossoms in your flower garden and the height and shape of your other plants.
These plants are a bit fussier than some of the other flowers you can choose to grow, but the fussiness comes more in the form of extra steps than extraordinarily difficult cultivation, so gardeners of any skill level can raise camellias once they’re armed with the knowledge that’s needed to care for them properly. After what you’ve learned reading this article, if you’re ready to add camellias to your garden, your hard work will be rewarded with a proliferation of beautiful blooms.