Camellia japonica “Red Red Rose”
As a foundation shrub, or a specimen plant, camellias (Camellia sp.) offer striking green foliage, elegant shaping, and brightly-colored blooms that make them one of the mainstays of the year-round garden. Almost any time of year, I can find a blossom or two on my camellias, and there is nothing lovelier than seeing the colorful flowers peeking out from under a late-winter snow. Here’s what you need to know to grow this nearly carefree shrub.
Features and Types of Garden Camellias
Like many landscape shrubs, there are thousands of cultivated camellia varieties and hybrids. In general, camellias have the following characteristics:
- Size: Typically 6-15 feet tall, although there are smaller (2 ft.) and larger (to 20 ft.) varieties as well. Width is 5-7 feet.
- Shape: Usually a dense upright shrub with a rounded, pyramidal, or small tree shape.
- Foliage: Evergreen, glossy dark leaves.
- Flowers: Large, rose like blooms with colors ranging from white to pink to red to yellow. A wide range of blossom size, shape, and color are available, including semi-double, double, and variegated blooms up to five inches across.
- Growth: Slowish, around a foot per year.
- Uses: Foundation plantings, borders, hedges, and specimen plants. Some varieties can be espaliered or grown as bonsai. Camellias can often be spotted as anchoring plants; their large size and dark green foliage provide structure, balance, and height to an overall garden design.
There are two types of camellias very commonly seen in home gardens:
Sasanqua (left) vs. Japonica (right)
- Japonica camellias (Camellia japonica) bloom in winter or early spring. They have large leaves and flowers and are the species most familiar to home gardeners.
- Sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua) have smaller, darker leaves along with smaller blossoms, and they bloom in the fall. Sasanqua camellias are hardier, more drought-tolerant and disease-resistant than japonicas, and many varieties can tolerate full sun.
- Other varieties are available, including hundreds of species of camellias with even more cultivated varieties. Gardeners in zones 9 and higher can enjoy the lovely varieties of Camellia reticulata, and gardeners with less favorable growing conditions might find a good match in the many camellia hybrids available.
Planting more than one species will give your garden multi-season color. And, of course, as you take in the beauty of your camellias on a warm afternoon, you could also enjoy a beverage made from the leaves of another well-known species of camellia, Camellia sinensis, also known as the tea plant.
Camellia sasanqua “Setsugekka”
Planting and Growing Conditions
Your camellia will grow best in these conditions:
- Climate: Most japonica and sasanqua camellias are hardy to zone 7, with a few varieties hardy to zone 6. Flower buds can be nipped by frost, so later-blooming varieties may do better in colder areas.
- Light: Semi-shade or dappled shade.
- Soil: Well-drained acidic soil (pH 6.0 to 6.5). Do not plant in waterlogged areas. Add plenty of organic matter to the planting hole to improve drainage.
- Water: Camellias are moderate drinkers and not particularly drought-tolerant, although older plants are more adaptable.
Variegated blooms are eye-catching and colorful.
- Camellias need to be planted a little high, so that the top of the root ball is level with the surface of the soil. This helps water drain away from the trunk.
- Camellia roots are shallow, so avoid planting them under shallow-rooted shade trees such as birch and maple. They are often grown in the light shade of tall, deep-rooted pine trees.
- Smaller varieties can be grown in containers. Use a potting mix designed for camellias, azaleas, or rhododendrons for best results.
Camellia japonica “Pink Perfection”
Caring for Camellias
- Pruning: Prune Camellia japonica after the spring bloom. Prune Camellia sasanqua in very early spring, before flower buds form. Usually all that’s needed is a light shaping, and pinching off the tips of branches will encourage more fullness.
- Fertilizing: After they finish blooming, feed camellias lightly with a balanced fertilizer, or with a fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants. Use fertilizer sparingly as camellias do not require a lot of extra food. For better absorption, apply fertilizer in a wide circle around the shrub’s drip line, rather than concentrating it around the trunk.
- Propagating: Camellias are most easily propagated by softwood cuttings, air layering, or grafting.
Camellia japonica “Midnight”
- Blooming: Increase watering during bloom time to encourage full blossoms. As an optional practice, some growers remove flower buds (called “debudding”) to promote larger, showier blooms. To do this, you can simply remove a bud that is touching another, or you can remove all the interior buds and just leave the ones on the tips of the branches.
- Mulching: Camellias need several inches of mulch to keep moisture levels and temperatures constant, but make sure the mulch doesn’t touch the trunk of the plant.
- Water: Keep camellias watered, but not soggy. Water deeply to encourage deeper, more drought-tolerant roots. Water well before a hard freeze to prevent cold damage.
Tea scale is a common camellia infestation.
Problems, Pests and Diseases
- Look underneath the leaves for signs of scale and spider mites, two main insect problems with camellias. Treat with insecticidal soap, spray, or alcohol.
- To help prevent the fungus known as petal blight, rake up and remove fallen blooms and petals.
- If the leaf veins are turning yellow, your soil pH may be too high. To find out, conduct a soil test and adjust as needed.
- Camellias naturally shed older leaves, so a small amount of leaf loss is normal. Large amounts of dead, yellowed, or blotchy leaves can be a sign of disease.
Camellia sasanqua “Winter’s Fancy”