If there’s a reason for a gardener to move to the south, it’s the camellia. You might say that this flowering shrub, which has been in cultivation for more than 1000 years, is the Southerner’s answer to the peony. Similarities between peonies and camellias include lushly petaled blooms, and a tendency to live for more than a century.
Get to Know Camellias
The genus Camellia, part of the Theaceae family, includes several common ornamental cultivars. C. japonica and C. sasanqua are the species most common in nurseries and catalogs. You may also find hybrids between species, developed by breeders who wish to add new colors and cold hardiness to the market.
Camellias are evergreen shrubs with dark, glossy leaves. Flowers may be white, pink, red, or streaked, and blooms can be single or double. Camellia sinensis yields flowers that produce tea, but is not as ornamental as the other cultivars.
Camellias stand for faithfulness and longevity in the language of flowers, and make a lush addition to winter wedding flower arrangements.
Where do Camellias Grow?
Camellias are reliably hardy in zones 7-9, although the fall blooming ‘Winter’ series and spring blooming ‘April’ series of camellias are hardy in zone 6B. Gardeners in cold climates can increase the chances of their camellias surviving the winter by carefully selecting their permanent site in the landscape. Ironically, a northern-facing planting has an advantage over a warmer southern site in the garden. Southern locations in the garden may cause the plant to break dormancy too early, resulting in the loss of flowers to frost damage. A north-facing site combined with a building, hedge, or fence that acts as a windbreak will give cold climate gardeners the best rate of success.
How Big Are Camellias?
Dwarf camellias top out at 2 feet in height, but many camellias grow to a mature height between 6 and 12 feet. Camellias are slow growing, and specimens can exceed 20 feet after many decades if they have excellent growing conditions.
Camellia plants enjoy light or dappled shade, but they do not like to compete for water and nutrients with trees in close proximity. Camellia sasanqua cultivars can take more sun than japonica types.
Know the mature size of your camellia, and plan accordingly if planting close to a window or home foundation. Plant camellias anytime except in the hottest summer months. Camellias require well-drained soil, and an ideal soil pH for camellias is within the 6.0-6.5 range. If your soil is dense clay and doesn't drain well, consider container culture: choose at least an 18-inch container and a rich, loamy potting soil.
If planting multiple camellia shrubs, space them at least 5 feet apart. It isn’t necessary to amend the backfill soil at planting time. Rather, lightly cultivate the top few inches of the soil, raking in compost or well-rotted manure.
Proper fertilization is important for a large flower count. Apply a potassium-rich fertilizer in July to facilitate petal development. Apply a slow release nitrogen fertilizer in the spring to keep foliage dark green and lush. You can also shop for fertilizers specifically designed for camellias, or even an azalea fertilizer.
Prune camellias after flowering to keep the interior of the shrubs free of dead and non-blooming branches. Remove any branches that droop on the ground.
Water camellias so that they are consistently moist. Dry periods that occur during bud development result in fewer flowers with a lower petal count. Drought stressed plants also open the door to spider mite infestation. Apply a 3-inch layer of mulch to moderate soil temperatures, retain soil moisture, and stifle weeds.
Pests and Diseases
If your camellia develops yellow leaves, this can be due to a couple of causes. First, inspect the undersides of leaves for tea scale, an insect pest that feeds on leaf juices. Although the leaves will appear yellow on top, the undersides will look white or fuzzy. Treat tea scale with horticultural oil. An iron deficiency can also cause yellow leaves. Test your soil, and feed your camellias with an iron supplement if needed.
Garden Design Tips With Camellias
In large gardens, place camellias as anchor points along the garden path. Use the camellia as an espalier specimen, where you train the shrub to grow flat against a fence or wall. Pair camellias with azaleas for continuous blooms from winter through late spring. Plant a blooming blanket of pansies under camellias. Coordinate camellia blooms with complementary or contrasting spring bulbs, such as crocus or Virginia bluebells.
Planting a mix of camellia varieties can provide the gardener with a succession of blossoms from September through May.
- April Dawn: Hardy in zone 6; white flowers streaked with pink
- Elfin Rose: Pale pink blooms appear in October and November
- Fragrant Pink: Warm winter days bring out the sweet fragrance of small pink flower clusters
- Francis Eugene Phillips: Highly sought after for ornamental fringed foliage; ruffled pink flowers
- Rebel Yell: White flower with red blotches and prominent stamens
- Sea Foam: A perfect looking white flower with a crisp form
- Yuletide: Red blooms on a compact, four-foot tall shrub