The camellia is a flowering evergreen shrub with dark, glossy leaves and large, lush blossoms that appear for several weeks sometime during the fall through early spring period in warmer regions. Where it is reliably hardy (zones 7 to 9), this is a very popular plant that is used in much the same way that northern gardeners use peony. Similarities between peonies and camellias include lushly petaled blooms and a tendency to outlive their owners.
Camellias can be planted from container-grown nursery plants at almost anytime except during the hottest summer months. They are slow-growing but exceptionally long-lived plants.
|Botanical Name||Camellia spp.|
|Plant Type||Broadleaf evergreen shrub|
|Mature Size||2–12 ft. tall, 2–10 ft. wide (depends on variety)|
|Soil Type||Rich, moist but well-drained|
|Bloom Time||Late fall, winter, early spring|
|Flower Color||White, pink, red, yellow, or lavender|
|Hardiness Zones||7–9 (USDA); some varieties hardy in zone 6|
|Native Area||Asia (Japan, China, Korea)|
Camellias are best planted in rich, moist soil in a part-shade location. If planting multiple camellia shrubs, space them at least 5 feet apart. They do not like to compete for water and nutrients with trees in close proximity. They should be planted at a relatively shallow depth, with the top of the crown slightly exposed. Know the mature size of your camellia, and plan accordingly if planting close to a window or home foundation. You do not need to amend the backfill soil at planting time; instead, rake compost or well-rotted manure into the top few inches of the soil.
In favorable conditions, camellia is an easy-to-care-for plant that requires pruning only to remove dead branches. However, some gardeners may find them susceptible to a variety of pest and insect problems, which are more serious for shrubs that are neglected or in poor health.
Camellias thrive in part shade, or in locations that see dappled sunlight for the entire day, such as in the understory beneath tall airy trees. Camellia sasanqua cultivars can take more sun than japonica types.
Camellias require well-drained soil, and an ideal soil pH for camellias is within the 6.0 to 6.5 range—slightly acidic. If your soil is dense clay and doesn't drain well, use containers instead.
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. Twice-a-week watering for a total of 1 inch per week is a good watering schedule. Apply a 3-inch layer of mulch to moderate soil temperatures, retain soil moisture, and stifle weeds.
Temperature and Humidity
Camellias are reliably hardy in USDA zones 7 to 9, although some, especially the hybrids, are known to be hardy in zone 6. Gardeners in cold climates can increase the chances of their camellias surviving the winter by carefully selecting their permanent site in the landscape. A northern-facing planting has an advantage over a warmer southern area. Southern locations 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 success rate.
Camellias are best fed with a nitrogen-rich slow-release fertilizer, such as 12-4-8 or 16-4-8 applied in three applications: early spring, late spring, and mid-summer. Avoid feeding after August, since the new growth it promotes can be damaged by cold temperatures.
The acidity that camellias favor can be provided by a fertilizer designed explicitly for camellias or azaleas.
Types of Camellia
Although camellias are indigenous to the Philippines, the genus is named for Moravian Jesuit priest Brother Josef Kamel, a botanist, pharmacist, and missionary who classified plants in the Philippines.
The Camellia genus belongs to the Theaceae (tea) plant family and includes well over 100 species. But nearly all garden camellias, of which there are hundreds of different types, are cultivars developed from C. japonica (Japanese camellia) or C. sasanqua (sansaqua camellia). A third common species, C. sinensis, is normally grown for tea production, not as an ornamental plant. Additional species sometimes lend their genetics to hybrids.
Some popular garden varieties include:
- 'April Dawn': Reliably hardy in zone 6; this variety has white flowers streaked with pink.
- 'Elfin Rose': This cultivar has pale pink blooms that appear in October and November.
- 'Fragrant Pink': This variety has small pink flower clusters with a sweet fragrance that is especially obvious on warm winter days.
- 'Francis Eugene Phillips': This popular cultivar has highly ornamental fringed foliage and ruffled pink flowers.
- 'Yuletide': This plant features red blooms on a compact, four-foot-tall shrub.
A growing class of camellias include the hybrids, usually designated as Camellia x williamsii. These include cultivars developed from a cross between C. Japonica and C. saluenensis. These are considered some of the most cold-hard camellias, usually reliably hardy into zone 6. Some popular hybrid camellias include:
- 'Anticipation': This hybrid with huge rose-pink flowers blooms from October to May. It is a large shrub, growing to as much as 15 feet tall
- 'China Clay': This hybrid has 4-inch white flowers that bloom from January to March. This large shrub can grow to 15 feet tall.
- 'Les Jury': This hybrid with deep red flowers is a smaller shrub, topping out at about 6 feet tall. It blooms in January through March.
- 'Elegant Beauty': This 8-foot-tall hybrid has very large rose-pink flowers that bloom from January to March.
Pruning should be kept at a minimum with camellias, as it can ruin the shrub's natural shape. 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.
Branches that show sign of blight or other fungal diseases should also be pruned away.
Camellias can be propagated by seeds, but it can take quite a long time to grow mature plants. It's more common to propagate by layering. Here's how to do it:
- In summer, bend a long stem down to the ground and make an angled nick in it.
- Loop the stem into the soil, so the wounded area is buried in the ground, and use a rock or stiff wire to hold it in place in the soil.
- Over the course of a full growing season, a good network of roots should develop from the wound in the buried stem. At this point, you can clip it away from the parent plant and dig up the offspring to move elsewhere.
How to Grow Camellia From Seed
Many garden camellias are hybrids that very rarely come true from collected seeds, though you can try seed propagation as an experiment. Camellia seeds ripen at different times depending on variety and location, but it's usually in the early fall. When seeds are mature, the pod begins to crack slightly and seeds are ready to be picked. If you have seeds, soak the seed for 12 hours or carefully crack the hard coat to aid in germination. Plant in good soil, peat moss, or a combination of peat moss and sand. Keep the soil damp. Seeds usually germinate in one month if planted immediately after harvesting. Some seeds may not germinate until spring. Better germination will occur when seeds are planted immediately upon ripening.
Potting and Repotting Camellias
Many camellias are large shrubs with deep taproots that don't lend themselves to container culture. However, smaller cultivars are sometimes grown as potted plants in large, wide, heavy containers filled with a good moisture-retentive potting mix. When transplanting a potted nursery plant into a patio container, sever off the taproot, which will cause the plant to develop a wider, more fibrous root system. A few inches of gravel or bark placed in the bottom of the container will help the pot drain well.
Potted camellias are heavy feeders that will gradually deplete their potting mix, so they should be repotted every three years or so. Sever back the roots by an inch or two, then repot into a larger container with additional fresh potting mix.
Camellia is an evergreen shrub that blooms in the winter in the South, where the winters are mild. If you have camellia in a container and you live in a cooler climate, ensure that the soil and root systems are protected from freezing solid. Dry leaves and pine straw can be used as an excellent source of insulation; mound them around and over the top, fully covering the container and soil. If you live in a colder climate, such as zone 7 or lower, keep the pot covered until spring. If you expect extreme cold or a prolonged cold snap, protect the plant by creating a burlap or canvas fence around it. Fill the space with leaves.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Weak shrubs are often susceptible to a discouragingly large number of pests and diseases. Aphids, thrips, mealybugs, scale, and mites can be common and are best treated with a horticultural oil such as neem oil.
Fungal diseases are also common with camellia, and can include various leaf spots, black mold, flower blight, canker, anthracnose, and root rot. A very common disease is petal blight, which causes the flowers to shrivel as they are just opening. While early fungicide application can sometimes forestall problems, when fungal diseases do appear, affected plant parts need to be cut away to prevent spread of disease.
How to Get Camellia to Bloom
The flowering period for camellias differs depending on the cultivar, but most bloom for several weeks sometime in the period from fall to mid-spring. These plants are prized for their blossoms and long bloom period, so it is a great disappointment when they don't bloom as expected. Failure to bloom is usually traced to one of these causes:
- Improper pruning: Pruning too late in the season may remove the flower buds that provide the winter/spring blossoms. If you prune them at all, it should be done immediately after the flowers fade, which will give time for the new wood to form that provides the next season's blossoms.
- Cold damage to flower buds: An unseasonable frost that occurs as flower buds form can kill the buds and eliminate or reduce flowering for that season. But the plant will usually recover nicely and return to its standard bloom pattern for the next season.
- Lack of nutrients: Poor soil will not support good flowering until the plants are adequately fed with fertilizer. This usually requires three feedings per growing season.
- Too much fertilizer: Excessive feeding can cause camellias to focus on green growth at the expense of flowers. If soil is already quite rich and heavy in organic material, too much additional fertilizer can actually cause reduced flowering.
- Soil not acidic enough: Camellias are acid-loving plants, and they may refuse to flower if grown in alkaline soil. Soil amendment or feeding with an acidifying fertilizer may be necessary if growing these plants in alkaline conditions.
- Not enough sun: Camellias tolerate partial shade, but they may be shy about flowering if grown in dense shade.
- Drought stress: Camellia shrubs like consistently moist soil if threatened by dry conditions, they may conserve energy by withholding flowers.
Common Problems With Camellia
Camellia shrubs that are kept properly watered and fed, and which are positioned in favorable soil and sunlight conditions, are usually fairly trouble free. However, in addition to the pest and disease issues mentioned above, you may see these cultural symptoms:
Yellow Leaves With Green Veins
This symptom is a sign of chlorosis, a condition caused by soil that is too alkaline, which prevents the plant from taking up the nutrients it needs from the soil. You may be able to decrease soil pH (make it more acidic) by amending with agricultural sulfur, or by feeding with an acidifying fertilizer formulated for azaleas and camellias.
Leaves Turn Yellow, Plant Wilts
This is a classic symptom of root rot, which can kill a plant quickly or over several years. There is no cure for fungal root rot, other than to remove the plant to prevent the disease from spreading. When purchasing new shrubs, inspect them carefully to make sure they are healthy. Root rot is most common in dense, poorly draining soils, so before replanting, it's a good idea to amend the soil with plenty of organic matter to improve its porosity.
Burned Leaf Edges
This is usually a sign of chemical burn caused by overfertlizing. Omit the next feeding and see if the symptoms resolve.
How can I use camellia in the landscape?
Camellias are often used in shrub borders, backgrounds, and loose hedges. Camellias stand for faithfulness and longevity in the language of flowers and are a lush addition to winter wedding floral arrangements. Occasionally, camellias are used as espalier specimens—training the shrubs to grow flat against a fence or wall.
How long do Camellia shrubs live?
There are documented cases of camellias that are more than 500 years old, and century-old plants are relatively common. Camellias have been in cultivation as garden plants for more than 1,000 years.
Are there any cultivars especially good for growing in containers?
While it is possible to grow large 15-foot camellias in very large, permanent containers, smaller cultivars are usually a better choice. Some good options include: 'Kramer's Supreme', a C. japonica cultivar that tops out at 8 feet and has good cold hardiness; 'October Magic', a C. sasanqua cultivar that grows only about 3 feet tall; and ‘Shi Shi Gashira', a C. sanqua variety that grows 5 to 6 feet tall.