One of the classic shrubs of the southern garden is the camellia. Camellias are evergreen, and bloom through fall and late winter with a wide variety of flower color and form. Their colorful blooms can brighten up a gloomy winter day. While camellias are relatively easy care, they often fail to achieve their optimum performance due to several factures. If you have camellias in your yard, or want a plant to brighten up a corner of your yard, read on to learn how to get the best out of your camellias.
First, an introduction to the camellia. There are two primary species, Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. Japonicas are large shrubs to even small trees, with large (2-4 -inch), glossy dark green leaves. Flowers are very diverse: 3-5 inches wide, in colors ranging from white, pink, rose, red, and combinations of colors, single or double bloom, flowering from winter through early spring.
Extreme cold temperatures can damage open flowers, so if low temperatures are predicted, pick some blooms ahead of time so you can enjoy them. Japonicas can grow up to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide — you need the right location for this plant! I remember an old Southern Living article on camellias recommending to allow 20-foot spacing when planting. The worst thing to happen to a camellia is to be in too small a location, or where it has to be kept to size under a window. One of the beauties of the camellia is its strong form; shearing it or keeping it cut down to four feet tall is like keeping an eagle in a cage — just wrong. There are many beautiful japonicas, but one of my favorites is Pink Perfection, which, as its name implies, has almost impossibly perfect pale pink flowers. Specimens at Weymouth Center in Southern Pines reach close to 15 feet tall and at least 6 feet wide. That is how to grow a japonica!
The Sasanqua camellia is the other common species. Depending on the variety, it can be about half the size of a japonica, with smaller leaves. Flower color range is similar to japonica, though the flowers are a little smaller. Form is variable: Yuletide is a somewhat narrow upright, flowers are single, red, with prominent yellow stamens. It blooms, as its name implies, in December. On the other hand, Mine-No-Yuki, which sets many lovely white, double flowers against dark green leaves, is more of a broad, loose shrub. Sasanquas are a little more cold sensitive than japonicas, so locate one in a protected area to be on the safe side.
Camellias of both species need sufficient sun to have best flowering, and morning sun is best. Amend the planting area well with organic matter, like compost or rotted leaves. Camellias prefer an acid soil, so no need to lime. Camellias can live with azaleas, rhododendrons and hollies, which all are well suited to our acidic soils. Pruning is best done after blooming, to avoid cutting off buds later, and should be done only lightly, with hand pruners. If a camellia needs constant sheering and cutting back, it is in the wrong location.
There are a couple of pests and diseases to look out for. One of the worst is camellia tea scale. Watch for yellowing leaves that on the back side looks like someone dusted with dirty white powder. Treat during the fall and winter with dormant oil, being sure to spray the underside of the leaf thoroughly. There is also a flower blight which will prevent flowers from developing, turning to brown mush before full flower. Pick up and destroy flowers to remove disease inoculum, and ensure good air circulation around your plant.
There is one more type of camellia that is getting increased attention: Camellia sinensis, or Tea camellia. This is the plant from which black tea is made. Tea camellia is even more hardy than japonica or sasanqua, and, while the flowers are not as showy, they are still attractive, flowering prolifically in the fall. It is a naturally smaller shrub than its cousins (4-6 feet high and wide) and very full. Not only is it a lovely and under-utilized plant, you can make your own tea from the leaves!
Now is a good time of year to add a new woody plant to your garden. Nothing could be easier than a camellia — just make sure you have the room for whichever variety you plant!
Paige Burns is assistant horticulture agent at the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Richmond County office.