If there’s a reason for a gardener to move to the south, it’s the camellia. 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.
The genus Camellia, part of the Theaceae family, includes several common ornamental species and many 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 it is not as ornamental as the other species.
Camellias stand for faithfulness and longevity in the language of flowers, and theys make a lush addition to winter wedding flower arrangements.
|Botanical Name||Camellia spp.|
|Plant Type||Broadleaf evergreen shrub|
|Mature Size||2 to 12 feet (depending on variety)|
|Sun Exposure||Part shade|
||Moist, rich soil|
|Soil pH||5.5 to 6.5 (acidic)|
|Bloom Time||Seasonal bloomer|
|Flower Color||White, pink, red, yellow, or lavender|
|Hardiness Zones||7 to 9 (USDA); a few varieties hardy in zone 6b|
|Native Area||Japan, China, Korea|
How to Grow Camellia Shrubs
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. 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.
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 thrive in part shade. 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. 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.
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.
Temperature and Humidity
Camellias are reliably hardy in USDA zones 7 to 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.
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.
Pruning should be kept at a minimum with camellias, as it can ruin the natural shape of the shrub. 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.
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.
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.
Varieties of Camellia
Planting a mix of camellia varieties can provide the gardener with a succession of blossoms from September through May.
- 'April Dawn' is hardy in zone 6; the white flowers are streaked with pink.
- 'Elfin Rose' has pale pink blooms that appear in October and November.
- 'Fragrant Pink' has small pink flower clusters with a sweet fragrance that is especially obvious on warm winter days.
- 'Francis Eugene Phillips' is highly sought after for ornamental fringed foliage and its ruffled pink flowers.
- 'Rebel Yell' has white flowers with red blotches and prominent stamens.
- 'Sea Foam' has perfect looking white flowers with a crisp form.
- 'Yuletide' features red blooms on a compact, four-foot-tall shrub.
Common Pests/ 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.
This is an excellent flowering shrub for shrub borders, backgrounds, and loose hedges. In large gardens, place camellias as anchor points along the garden path. Use the camellia as an espalier specimen—training 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.