11 Mistakes You Might Be Making With Your Camellias

Camellias are a popular fall blooming shrub that have many beautiful and differently colored blooms. But before they bloom, many novice and experienced gardeners alike can make some very simple mistakes during their most important growth stages. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss walks through the most common mistakes gardeners make each season with their camellias.

camellia mistakes

Camellias are a beautiful addition to garden landscapes. From zones 6-10, these lovely evergreen plants offer a profusion of blooms in the cooler months of the year and are quite cold hardy.

There are a few important factors to keep in mind when growing and maintaining camellias. When planted and tended to properly, they are a low-maintenance way to add color and beauty to your garden year-round.

If you find that your camellia is not thriving or blooming as you’d expect, there could be a simple solution. While they are very hardy, there are a handful of factors that can prevent a camellia from looking and feeling its best. Here we will discuss 11 of the most common mistake gardeners make that keep camellias from living up to their full potential.

Planting in Soil That is Too Alkaline

gardener holding soil
Camellias prefer moderately acidic soil.

If you notice that your camellia leaves are turning yellow and looking, in general, as though they are not getting enough nutrients, you may be dealing with a soil acidity issue.

One of the most important factors to the happiness of a camellia plant is the acidity of the soil. Camellias like a moderately acidic environment and grow well in areas where there is an abundance of decayed organic material.

Camellias need acidic soil to break down two nutrients that they need an ample amount of, iron and manganese. In soil that is too alkaline, these nutrients don’t break down enough for the plant to absorb adequate amounts. This is the leading cause of yellowing leaves and inhibited growth in camellias.

To rectify this problem, there are several options for raising the acidity level of your soil. If you want to have your soil tested, the number you are looking for will be within the range of 5.5-6.5. Adding a commercial acidifier is one method, as is enriching the soil with sulfur.

If you want to go a more natural route, adding pine bark or pine needle mulch is effective. If you live in an area with lots of oak trees, you can repurpose fallen leaves by skipping the bags and raking them around the bottom of your camellias.

Underwatering Young Plants

gardener watering garden
Freshly planted camellias need plenty of water to stimulate the development of a deep root system.

Young, newly planted camellias need regular watering to help them establish roots. If your new camellia’s leaves are looking dry and curled, it may not be getting enough water.

Fortunately, this is an easy problem to fix, and camellias are resilient plants. While you may ultimately lose some foliage, if the issue was underwatering, you should begin to see some new growth within a few weeks of regular watering.

Young camellias should be watered deeply to encourage deeper root systems. If you planted in the fall, water about once every week to two weeks if you aren’t getting adequate rain.

In areas where there is a lot of rain in the fall, a young plant may root quite well with little intervention. When planting in the spring, water deeply once a week for the first month. Then, you can reduce to once every two weeks.

Overwatering Mature Plants

red camellia with water drops
Once your camellias are established, water them only during times of drought.

An issue that causes yellowing of leaves in a mature plant is overwatering. Camellias need regular watering only when young, and a mature plant (3-4 years old) will be quite a drought tolerant. Camellias need well drained soil, because they are susceptible to root rot. This happens when the root system is kept overly wet or marshy.

Once your camellias are established, there is little cause to water them except in times of drought. If it hasn’t rained for a couple of weeks, give your camellia a good drench. Otherwise, let nature take its course. If you live in an area where you get a decent amount of rain, your camellias should be fine without much intervention.

Planting in Too Much Sun

White Camellia flowers blooming in sunshine
Camellias prefer to grow in shadier conditions.

As acidity and proper drainage are important factors in camellia location, sun exposure is also something that needs to be considered. If your camellia isn’t producing many blooms, or much new growth, it is probably getting too much sun. This sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it? Camellias have hardy foliage. While they look like they could take a lot of sunlight, the reality is, they are shade lovers.

The amount of sunlight camellias tolerate varies somewhat between species. The two most common species that grow outside of their native Asia are C. japonica and C. sasanqua. Japonica generally needs less sun than Sasanqua.

Dappled or filtered sunlight is usually enough, although a few hours of direct sunlight in the morning is fine for most varieties. For Sasanqua, a few more hours of sunlight won’t hurt the plant, especially once it is mature and established.

Over Fertilizing

burnt camellia leaves due to over fertilizing
If you notice burns on camellia leaves, this is a sign of over-fertilizing.

Camellias are fairly low maintenance where fertilizing is concerned. If you notice that your new growth is very spindly or leggy, and leaves are not looking healthy and dark, you may be over fertilizing. A mature camellia will do better with no fertilizer than with too much.

If you find yourself fertilizing more than three times per year, hold back a bit. It is possible to give a camellia too much nitrogen, which will cause leaves to burn and drop off.

Under Fertilizing

It is recommended to fertilize around three times a year.

While camellias don’t need a lot of fertilizer, they do benefit from a light application three times per year, once each in the spring, summer, and fall.

A mature camellia will do well with a 4-8-8 fertilizer, while a younger plant will benefit from a slightly higher nitrogen formula for the first 3 years. An all-purpose 10-10-10 should be sufficient.

When fertilizing, clear away any mulch from around the base of the plant and apply to the ground, just out to the drip line of the individual plant. Then move mulch or other root covering back in place.

Not Pruning

Pruning camellia
Prune your camellias to maintain their health and aesthetic appearance.

Pruning is another factor that can affect the overall health of camellias. Young camellias should be left to grow unchecked for the first 3-4 years. This will allow them to thicken up and become established, and, helps prevent disease before the plant is strong enough to survive them.

Pruning a mature plant for aesthetic purposes will help control the appearance of your landscape and achieve maximum blooms. If you notice your camellia is looking cluttered and not blooming much, or is becoming too leggy, it may need a good pruning.

Pruning a mature plant should be done once per year, after the blooming season. The most important step for the overall health of the plant is to thin out the inner branches. This allows for greater airflow and sunlight to reach the inner branches.

The importance of this step is to help the plant resist pests, diseases, and fungus. In addition, pruning off the ends of branches will encourage maximum development of new buds, and thus, more flowers!

If a camellia has grossly overgrown its location or needs some thickening up, a hard pruning may be appropriate. Camellias are very resilient and can tolerate being pruned back by at least 50%, and in some cases, down to about 3’ from the ground.

If you worry that you have over pruned, take heart, you may not see many, if any blooms this season, but your camellia should come back in a year or two with more vigor than before.

Planting the Wrong Time of Year

germinated camellia seeds
Camellias are recommended to be planted in the garden in spring if you live in a cool climate, and in autumn if you live in a warm one.

Camellias establish themselves best when planted in spring or fall. If you live in a warmer climate, planting in the fall is preferred. This allows the plant to establish roots before the stress of the following year’s summer heat.

If you live in a cooler climate, wait until the ground thaws in the spring. As with most blooming trees and flowering shrubs, it is best to plant them outside of their blooming season, which is predominantly in the winter for camellias.

Camellias don’t need to be planted very deeply. When planting in the ground, dig a hole that is twice as wide and only as deep as the root ball for best results.

Improper Drainage

Cmaellia root rot
Root rot causes yellowing and leaf fall off, and then the general death of the plant.

Camellias are highly susceptible to root rot. Root rot will cause leaves to turn yellow and fall off. This gives the plant a general appearance of unhealthiness.

Root rot additionally makes the root system more vulnerable to other fungal infections such as phytopthora cinnamoni, a form of root rot that is distinguished by its characteristic red roots and overall death of the plant.

If your camellia is in a spot where the ground never dries out, there are a couple of solutions. The first is the most drastic, and that is relocating the plant to a more well drained spot. This is also the most permanent solution.

If you are determined that your camellia needs to stay put, digging around the plant and mixing sand into the soil will help. Also, try to avoid watering if you are getting regular amounts of rain.

Ignoring Signs of Pests

scale insect
The most common pests that pose a threat to camellia are scale insects, spider mites and aphids.

There are a handful of pests that can pose a threat to camellias. The first is scale and is characterized by a white moldy substance that they leave on the leaves of the plant, in addition to yellow mottling of the leaves in advanced cases.

If you notice a grey/bronze color on the top of your leaves check for spider mites. This can be done by holding a sheet of paper beneath an affected leaf and tapping the top of the leaf. The spider mites should fall to the paper where they can be identified.

A third pest that can plague camellias are aphids. Aphids like the tender new growth of plants they feed on. This causes new growth to curl and shrivel. Aphids also leave a black moldy substance behind which needs to be wiped from each leaf by hand, so it’s good to catch this one as early as possible.

All three pests can be treated safely with neem oil. It is best to spray the plants in the late afternoon to early evening so that the neem oil has an opportunity to dry before the pollinators come out the next morning. Commercial insecticides will also irradicate these pests.

Ignoring Signs of Disease

camellia shrub with black and gray diseases spot on leaves
To prevent root rot, it is recommended to transplant camellias in well-drained soil.

The two most common diseases that affect camellias are phytophthora cinamomi root rot, and yellow mottle leaf virus. Phytophthora cinamomi is the more serious problem fungus known to cause yellowing leaves and root rot

Confirmation of phytophthora infection can be observed clearly at the root, which will turn a reddish-brown color, rather than the normal white color of a healthy plant.

Phytopthora is not curable and ultimately leads to whole plant death. The best protection is prevention. Preventing root rot in general by planting your camellia in well-drained soil is the best defense.

Mottle leaf virus is generally spread by unhygienic propagation. The result is an irregular yellow discoloration on the leaves. There is no cure for the virus, however, it causes no lasting damage to the plant save for the discoloration, which can be quite pretty. For this reason, some growers propagate plants intentionally to have this virus, sheerly for the signature mottled leaves.

Final Thoughts

While there are no guarantees that your camellia won’t fall victim to one of the more serious items on this list, proper planting, watering, and pruning goes a long way in maintaining the strength of the plant and integrity of the root system. The best treatment for most of these issues is prevention.

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