The Complete Guide to Camellias
The South is the heart of camellia country. Indeed, common camellia (Camellia japonica) is even Alabama's state flower. Although it seems these plants, which are so well suited to our area, must have been born here, they actually hail from eastern and southern Asia. These lovely evergreen shrubs and trees are members of the tea family, Theaceae, and bring blooms to our gardens during the cold months. More than 3,000 named kinds of camellias exist in a remarkable range of colors, forms, and sizes. They are not browsed by deer, another plus point for life outdoors in the South. This beautiful, flowering shrub is a Southern favorite because it loves the Southern climate and has a long blooming season. (Some even bloom in fall!) Read on for a few top tips on planting and tending camellias in your area.
Establishing New Plants
When it comes to planting, spring or fall is fine for most areas. Spring is better in the Upper South, where the root system needs time to get established before onset of cold weather. Be sure to mulch thoroughly to keep roots cool and the soil moist. Regular watering is critical during the first year. Water thoroughly to moisten the entire root ball; then let the top of the root ball go slightly dry before the next watering.
Exposure and Watering
In general, camellias grow and bloom better in light, partial shade, with shelter from hot afternoon sun. This is especially true for young plants, which thrive under the shade of tall trees or when grown on the north side of a house. As they grow larger and their thick canopy of leaves shades and cools their roots, they gradually will accept more sun. Shade provided in winter reduces cold damage in the Upper South.
Established plants (over 3 years old, vigorous, and shading their own roots) get by with little supplemental water. If you do water them, make sure the soil is well drained. Shelter them from strong winds, particularly in the Upper South or near the coast. They do not tolerate salt spray, so coastal climates are not ideal for camellia planting.
Feed with an acid-forming azalea or camellia fertilizer in spring, after the flowers have dropped; fertilize again in the midsummer if growth seems sluggish or foliage looks sparse and begins to lose its deep green color. Apply at the rate recommended on the label. Don't overdo it, as plants grown in fertile soil need little fertilizer―and never feed plants that are sick or distressed.
Scorched or yellowed areas in the center of leaves usually indicate a sunburn. Burnt leaf edges, excessive leaf drop, or corky leaf spots generally point to overfertilizing. Chlorosis (yellow leaves with green veins) results from planting in neutral or alkaline soil; to correct, feed plant with chelated iron and amend soil with sphagnum peat moss and/or garden sulfur to adjust the pH.
Tea scale is a common pest. These pests look like tiny brown or white specks on leaf undersides; sooty mold grows on the honeydew they secrete. Infested leaves turn yellow and drop. To treat tea scale, apply horticultural oil or a systemic insecticide such as acephate (Orthene) or dimethoate (Cygon), following label instructions.
Two fungal diseases are common. Camellia petal blight causes flowers to turn brown rapidly, then drop. Sanitation is the best control: pick up and destroy all fallen blossoms as well as infected ones still on the plant. Remove and discard any existing mulch, then replace it with a 4- to 5-in. layer of fresh mulch. Camellia leaf gall causes leaves to become distorted, pale, thick, and fleshy; they gradually turn white, then brown, then drop from the plant. The best control is to pick up and destroy affected leaves before they turn white.
Bud drop is a frequent complaint. To some extent, this is natural for all camellias (many set more buds than they can open), but it also may be caused by overwatering, summer drought, or sudden freezes. For more information on issues to avoid when tending camellias, check out The Biggest Mistakes To Avoid When Growing Camellias.
Prune after blooming has ended. Remove dead or weak wood; thin out growth when it is so dense that flowers have no room to open properly. Shorten lower branches to encourage upright growth; cut back top growth to make lanky shrubs bushier. When pruning, cut just above a scar that marks the end of the previous year's growth (often a slightly thickened, somewhat rough area where bark texture and color change slightly). Making your cuts just above this point usually forces three or four dominant buds into growth.
Camellias in Containers
Camellias are outstanding container plants whether you grow them outdoors on a terrace or indoors in a cool greenhouse. As a general rule, plant gallon-size camellias in 12- to 14-in.-diameter containers, 5-gallon ones in 16- to 18-in. containers. Fill the container with a potting mix containing 50 percent or more organic material. Make sure the container has a generous drainage hole. For more information, check out 10 Things All Camellia Enthusiasts Need To Know.
If you live in the Upper or Tropical South and have problems growing camellias, take heart: You can now enjoy hybrids that flourish in the extremes of weather found in both regions.
A number of species, most notably the C. oleifera, produce hybrids that withstand temperatures as low as -15°F with little or no damage provided they have some shelter from winter sun and wind. Selections include 'Polar Ice' and 'Snow Flurry', with white anemone-form blossoms; 'Winter's Charm', pink peony form; 'Winter's Dream', semidouble pink blooms; 'Winter's Fire,' with semidouble to peony-form, hot pink flowers in midwinter; 'Winter's Star', lavender-pink single blooms; 'Winter's Waterlily', white winter double. C. japonica also has an April series of hardy camellias, named for the time they typically bloom in the cooler, northern part of their range. These include 'April Blush', 'April Dawn', 'April Remembered', 'April Rose', 'April Snow', and 'April Tryst'.
These japonicas perform well in the Tropical South as far as Fort Myers and West Palm Beach in Florida: 'Alba Plena', 'Debutante', 'Gigantea', 'Lady Clare', 'Mathotiana', 'Professor Charles S. Sargent', and 'Red Giant'. You can even try them in Miami, though you'll have to grow them in pots because of the alkaline soil there.
When it comes to camellias, if you'd like to think outside the seasonal box, try out fall-blooming camellias, also known as Sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua). These species grow more compactly than common camellias, reaching about 10-12 feet tall and wide at maturity. They produce beautiful, glossy, green foliage and big blooms just as the rest of the garden is settling in for a long winter's nap.
No matter the camellia you choose, there's a shrub or two that's perfect for your garden. With a little care and attention, you'll have plenty of bright blooms adding cheer to your space during the cooler months.