How to Grow and Care for Camellia Japonica

Japanese camellia shrub with large pink flower clusters and large leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Camellias are popular plants with showy blooms, and the Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) is a favorite. The state flower of Alabama, this compact, long-lived shrub has dark, glossy foliage. The beautiful clusters of blooms usually appear in late winter and stay through the spring. They come in various colors and bring a plethora of pollinators to your garden.

Although Japanese camellias are slow-growing, they are often used as an informal screen. You can also train them as an espalier specimen to grow up against a wall or fence.

Common Name Japanese Camellia, Common Camellia
Botanical Name Camellia Japonica
 Family Theaceae
 Plant Type Shrub, Evergreen
 Mature Size 7-12 ft. tall, 5-10 ft. wide
 Sun Exposure Partial
 Soil Type Loamy, Clay, Sandy
 Soil pH Acidic, Neutral, Slightly Alkaline
 Bloom Time Fall, Winter, Spring
 Flower Color White, Red, Pink, Lavender, or Variegated
Hardiness Zones 7-9, USA
 Native Area China, Korea, Japan

Japanese Camellia Care

These shrubs take their time to establish and are quite picky about growing conditions. When planting, dig a large hole as deep as the root ball and about four times wider. In colder regions, select a site sheltered from dry winter winds. They aren't fans of sudden temperature changes, inconsistent watering or transplanting.

Japanese camellia work as companions for trees like magnolias and pines because of their love of partial shade and acidic pH levels. Planting in fall or spring is possible. In northern regions, early spring is best because a hard freeze makes it hard for the shrub to establish.

Japanese camellia shrub with large pink flower closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Japanese camellia shrub branch with large pink flowers and buds

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Japanese camellia shrub with large pink flowers on branches

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Japanese camellia shrub with large pink and white flower

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

Japanese camellias produce the best blooms in a light shade environment. They can cope in full sun but often need protection from intense, direct afternoon sun.

Soil

These shrubs are picky about soil conditions. A well-drained, nutrient-rich, moist, and slightly acidic soil is best. If you notice the leaves on your shrub are turning yellow, it could be a sign that the soil is a little too acidic. A pH of 6 to 6.5 is ideal. Although they like moisture, it needs to be consistent, so avoid wet soils.

If you have dense, clay soils prone to saturation, you'll need to grow your Japanese camellia in containers.

Water

Japanese camellias need consistent moisture (but not to the point of saturation) to produce healthy abundant blooms. Using a root mulch can help retain moisture.

Temperature and Humidity

Sudden temperature changes are not your Japanese camellia's friend. They can cope with temperatures that drop to as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit but only for short periods.

Select the site carefully and make sure it has adequate shelter against cold winter winds.

Fertilizer

If you want to see lots of healthy blooms on your Japanese camellia, apply a high in potassium fertilizer monthly during the summer. In the spring, you can use a slow-release nitrogen-rich fertilizer as this will promote healthy, dark foliage. It's even possible to find camellia specific fertilizers in some garden centers.

Types of Japanese Camellia

Of all the camellia species, Camellia japonica is the most widely grown and has the most cultivars to choose from. There are thousands available with a wide variety of bloom times, sizes and petal forms. Just a few popular options include:

  • 'Betty Sheffield Supreme': Blooms midseason and has large white petals with red and pink blotched borders
  • 'Carter's Sunset': Has large, semi-double pink peony-form flowers with a long bloom season
  • 'Korean Fire': More cold-hardy than many cultivars, this can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 6 to 9, and the funnel-shaped red flowers certainly catch the eye
  • 'Kramer's Surprise': A delightfully fragrant cultivar with brilliant red peony-form flowers

Pruning

Unless you are training your Japanese Camelia, it won't need much pruning, and too much can actually spoil the attractive natural shape. Only remove dead or damaged branches or long, heavy shoots straight after the flowering season. This stimulates branching and prevents accidental removal of new flower buds.

Propagating Japanese Camellia

Many gardeners successfully propagate Camellia Japonica through the layering technique, where the new plant stays attached to the original one while roots are forming.

Bend a long stem down to the ground in the summer months and then nick it at an angle. This wounded area should be looped and buried in the ground and held in place with wire or a stone. Once a network of roots has been established over the growing season, it can be clipped off the parent plant and rerooted elsewhere.

How to Grow Japanese Camellia From Seed

It's possible to grow these shrubs from seed, but it is challenging as they ripen at different times depending on the cultivar and region. Mature seeds have pods that are beginning to crack slightly. If you want to give it a try, follow these steps for a chance at success:

  1. Soak the seeds for 24 hours or crack off the hard coat as this will aid germination.
  2. Sow in well-drained, loose soil rich in organic matter, ideally in a greenhouse where temperatures are around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Keep the soil moist but not saturated. Germination normally takes one to three months
  4. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, you can move them to individual pots.
  5. Keep them in the greenhouse through their first winter.
  6. When they are at least six inches tall, you can transplant them to their permanent position, providing they have adequate protection from the cold

Overwintering

If you live in a southern region and experience mild winters, your Japanese Camellia can remain outdoors in a protected site all year round. In northern regions, container growing is better. That way, you can protect the roots from freezing by covering the soil with a thick, mounded layer of dry leaves and pine and cover the plant with a burlap or canvas protective fence until spring arrives.

If you want to overwinter your plant indoors, you need to have a temperature-controlled environment where temperatures do not exceed 55 degrees Fahrenheit; otherwise, flower buds will drop. Excessive humidity and sudden changes in temperatures are not this shrubs friend.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

There are no major problems to worry about with Japanese camellia,s although they can be susceptible to some fungal diseases. Keep an eye out for leaf spot, flower blight and cankers so that you can nip any issues in the bud before they get out of control.

Scale insects can sometimes infest the plant in milder regions, and they can cause premature bud drop. Preventing your plant from becoming drought-stressed with enough water in the dry season can help to minimize this problem.

How to Get Japanese Camellia to Bloom

These shrubs will provide an impressive display of beautiful flowers that grow in clusters through winter and early spring in the northern hemispheres. Exact flowering times, sizes, form and colors depend on the cultivar you select. The flowers usually last three to four weeks.

The most common colors are white, red, pink, and variegated, and they are usually two to five inches in size.

To prevent premature or excessive bud drop, be careful to retain moist but not saturated soil conditions. Underwatering during the summer and when humidity is low is a common problem.

Too much sun and excessively cold temperatures can reduce the flowering display, so make sure you pick the right position for your Japanese camellia. If you want to increase the bloom size, remove all but one bud from the cluster.

FAQ
  • How long can Japanese Camellia live?

    These plants have long lives. With the right care, they can live to be hundreds of years old. In fact, some of these shrubs around the emperor's palace in Japan are known to be over 500 years old.

  • What’s the difference between Japanese camellia and sasanqua?

    Another popular camellia species is sasanqua (Camellia sasanqua). They are very similar to Japanese camellia, but instead of blooming from winter to spring, they bloom from summer to fall, and their flowers tend to be smaller. Sasanqua can tolerate more direct sunlight, but they aren't as cold hardy as Camellia japonica.

  • How fast do Japanese camellia grow?

    A slow-growing evergreen shrub, the Japanese camellia can reach heights of 25 feet, but this can take over one hundred years. It can still take decades for them to reach heights above six to eight feet. If you want a faster-growing variety, opt for a sasanqua.