How to Grow Camellia

camellia shrub

The Spruce / Kara Riley 

The camellia is a flowering shrub cultivated for more than 1,000 years and is the southern U.S. answer to the peony. Similarities between peonies and camellias include lushly petaled blooms and a tendency to live for more than a century. They live so long because they grow slowly. Camellias are part of the Theaceae or tea plant family, including the most common ornamental species, C. japonica and C. sasanqua. Camellia sinensis yields flowers that produce tea, but it is not as ornamental. They can be planted anytime except for the hottest summer months.

Camellias are evergreens with dark, glossy leaves. Flowers may be white, pink, red, or streaked, and blooms can be single or double. It is popularly used in shrub borders, backgrounds, and loose hedges. Camellia can be used as an espalier specimen—training the shrub to grow flat against a fence or wall. Camellias stand for faithfulness and longevity in the language of flowers and are a lush addition to winter wedding floral arrangements.

Although the plant is an indigenous species in the Philippines, the flower became commonly named for Moravian Jesuit priest Brother Josef Kamel, a botanist, pharmacist, and missionary who classified plants in the Philippines.

Botanical Name Camellia spp.
Common Names Camellia
Plant Type Broadleaf evergreen shrub
Mature Size 2 to 12 feet (depending on variety)
Sun Exposure Part shade
Soil Type Moist, rich soil
Soil pH 5.5 to 6.5 (acidic)
Bloom Time Late fall, winter, and early spring
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

Camellia Care

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. 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.

If your camellia develops yellow leaves, 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.

closeup of a camellia flower
The Spruce / Kara Riley  
camellia flowers about to unfurl
The Spruce / Kara Riley 
camellia shrub in bloom
The Spruce / Kara Riley 

Light

Camellias thrive in part shade. Camellia sasanqua cultivars can take more sun than japonica types.

Soil

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, use containers instead. Choose at least an 18-inch container and a rich, loamy potting soil.

Water

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. 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.

Fertilizer

Proper fertilization is essential 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 designed explicitly for camellias or even an azalea fertilizer.

Camellia Varieties

  • 'April Dawn': Hardy in zone 6; the white flowers are streaked with pink
  • 'Elfin Rose': Pale pink blooms that appear in October and November
  • 'Fragrant Pink': Small pink flower clusters with a sweet fragrance that is especially obvious on warm winter days
  • 'Francis Eugene Phillips': Highly sought after for ornamental fringed foliage and its ruffled pink flowers
  • 'Yuletide': Features red blooms on a compact, four-foot-tall shrub
Camellia Yuletide
Camellia 'Yuletide' Peter Stevens/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Camellia April Dawn
Camellia 'April Dawn'  Ed/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Pruning

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.

Propagating Camellias

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.

How to Grow Camellia From Seed

Camellias do not come true from seed, at least, very rarely. 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 or Repotting Camellias

Once the seeds have germinated, transplant into containers or outside. Cut off the taproot to produce a more fibrous root system. This step is helpful if planting in a container. If planting in a landscape, the taproot will help the plant survive during periods of drought or severe cold.

Overwintering

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 cooler climates, 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.