How to Plant, Grow and Care For Camellias
Camellias are a popular warm weather evergreen shrub, or tree. These flowering beauties are a mainstay in warmer climates, but they can be somewhat picky about their growing conditions. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss walks through how to plant, grow, and care for Camellias!
For most of the year, camellias make a lovely, evergreen addition to Southern gardens. Their neatly modeled, dark green, waxy leaves create a lush background for flowering plants from late Spring through early Autumn. It is in the winter, however, when most flowering plants are dormant, that the camellia has its time to shine.
If you are looking for a hardy, low maintenance shrub that offers show-stopping blooms during the colder months, look no further than the enchanting camellia.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to inherit mature camellia plants, we will discuss optimal care and keeping. However, if you are still on the fence, here is your encouragement to add these lovely plants to your garden. Follow along as we discuss every aspect of growing camellias and their care.
Camellia Plant Overview
Plant type Evergreen Shrub, Tree
Pests beetles, weevils, grasshoppers
Exposure Partial shade, morning sun
Disease petal blight, canker, root rot
Plant Spacing minimum of 5 feet, 3 feet for hedges
Maintenance Low to moderate
Species Over 250
Planting Depth 12 inches wide/deep (age dependent)
Soil type moderately acidic, well drained
Native Area Southeastern Asia
Height Usually 6-12 ft.; Up to 25 ft.
Plant with Azaleas and rhododendrons
Hardiness Zones 7-10 for most species
Watering Needs Regular while plant establishes roots
Attracts bees and hummingbirds
Camellias are a wonderful way to bring pops of color to your garden during the winter months. While most flowering plants are dormant during the coldest months of the year, camellias are at their most stunning in December and January.
They grow best in zones 7-10 but can survive in zone 6 with some shelter and extra attention during extended periods of freezing temperatures.
Camellias are most spectacular when covered in blooms, but throughout the rest of the year, they remain an attractive evergreen, which can be pruned to grow as a tree or a blooming shrub and offers excellent privacy as a hedge. Their leaves are thick, generally serrated and glossy. The blooms are large and showy with yellow stamens which are typically visible when blooms are fully open.
Camellias have a moderate rate of growth, gaining up to 30cm per year in height. They can reach maturity in as few as 4 to 5 years but have been known to continue growing for as long as a hundred years, occasionally reaching heights of up to 25 feet or more.
Most species flower early, but some can take up to 5 years to show their blooms. Commonly mistaken for roses, camellias have similar petal formations as many types of garden roses, but they are free of thorns and mostly without fragrance.
Boasting more than 250 species, camellias come in many shades of red, pink, purple, yellow and white, and 6 different petal formations.
They are members of the Theaceae family of flowering plants, which is commonly known as the “tea” family. This family includes the popular Camellia Sinensis, which is widely used to produce matcha green tea.
Camellias aren’t just beautiful in the garden and beneficial for human use. They also provide much needed pollen for bees and nectar for hummingbirds over the winter. Their unique habit of blooming in the winter makes them a very important bridge in the pollinator world.
Originating in Southern and Eastern Asia, there are more than 250 species of camellia and close to 3,000 hybrid variations. They are primarily classified by leaf formation and petal formation. Some of the more common camellia varieties include:
Camellia Japonica is the predominant species and comes in a wide variety of colors and flower forms. There are, in fact, upwards to 3,000 different cultivars of this species. C. Japonica is a favorite in the Southern United States where it graces some of the most well-cultivated gardens.
Japonica flowers are mainly red, white and pink, and blooms range from 2”-5” in diameter. They are slower growing and are a great companion to magnolia trees as they favor a similarly acidic and well-drained soil.
They prefer partial sunlight to full and will bloom most prolifically in dappled sunlight. Japonicas thrive in zones 7-10, however, some will survive in Zone 6.
The Sasanquas is the most common species grown in the United States. It’s blooms begin to open in the Autumn, earlier than most other species, and it has more of a shrubby habit than the more tree like Japonica.
C. Sasanquas is more tolerant of direct sunlight than other species, making more versatile in the South. Which is great because they don’ typically thrive outside of zones 7-10
Where Japonica frequently comes has a double bloom, Sasanquas generally are single blooms that open to display a brilliant golden stamen.
Cultivated over 2,000 years ago in China, this is the form of camellia from which we derive the stimulating and flavorful matcha tea which is coveted by so many around the world.
While some have touted health benefits from ground leaves, relatively little attention is paid to this rather small and shrubby variety.
In spite of the inconspicuous nature of it’s blooms, it has a sweet and enchanting fragrance that greets passersby on breezy afternoons. The fragrance is evocative of apple blossoms and jasmine, and the flowers throw scent quite nicely.
Although less commonly grown as an ornamental than some of its larger cousins, C. Sinensis is certainly not without its charms.
C. Reticulata is the tallest of its species and boasts the largest flowers. Known to grow to heights near 50 feet, it is a stunning, albeit, difficult to find specimen. Hybrids can produce flowers up to 6’`10” in diameter, these large, mostly double bloomed flowers lend to a gentle arching of the branches.
C. Reticulata is more susceptible to cold temperatures than most species and enjoys loose acidic soil and protection from afternoon sun. Dappled sunlight will make Reticulata bloom most prolifically.
Best known for its unique golden-yellow blooms, C. Chrysantha is commonly used in making tea. Chrysantha is mainly found in China and Vietnam and is only compatible with zone 11. If you are fortunate enough to acquire one in the United States, it will share its fragrant golden blooms in early Spring.
Camellia petals appear in 6 different formations creating a wide variety of appearances among different cultivars.
- Single – one row of no more than eight petals with visible stamens.
- Double – two or more rows of petals with visible stamens.
- Anemone – one or more rows of large outer petals.
- Peony – blooms are deeply rounded and may be irregularly petaled.
- Rose Form Double – layered petals showing stamens only when fully opened.
- Formal Double – many layers of petals and fully obscured stamens.
Propagating camellias is something that any gardener can achieve at home. However, not all methods of propagation are equal where these shrubby trees are concerned.
Camellias have been crossbred for thousands of years, so there is no guarantee with growing from seed or volunteer, that all characteristics of the parent plant will carry forward. As with all hybrid plants, the offspring could look very different from the parent plant.
Propagation From Seeds
Growing camellias from seeds is a perfectly viable place to start, as long as you don’t have your heart set on replicating a very specific parent plant.
Camellia seeds appear as small, round, green pods. They form after blooming has finished for the season. Seeds should be harvested only when ripened. When the pod turns brown and splits, the seed inside is ripe and ready to plant.
Seeds will need to be scarified (an emery board or fine grit sandpaper works well) and soaked in warm water for several hours, or overnight, for best results. Seeds need to be planted soon after soaking, as drying out can cause them to lose viability.
Camellia seeds have a small eye or depression on one side. Plant the seed with the “eye” end facing down, as this is where the root will emerge from. Seeds should be planted a half inch deep in a 1:3 mixture of planting soil, peat moss and perlite. Remember that Camelias prefer moist, but well drained soil. Place them in a warm sunny spot.
Germination usually takes about a month, so some patience is required for this method.
Propagation From Seedlings
If seed pods are left to their own devices, they will drop their seeds around the base of the parent plant. These seedlings can be gently dug up and planted in containers or directly in the ground.
If you are growing your seedling in a container, choose one that is twice the size of the root system. Trimming the end of the tap root will produce a plant with denser leaf formation and more fibrous root system. Potted plants should be placed in indirect sunlight, as camellias are a shrub that prefer the shade.
If planting directly in the ground, note that camellias do not like to be buried deeply or have soggy roots. Dig a hole twice as wide and the same depth as the root system. Loosely backfill the hole and water to set.
Camellias prefer slightly acidic soil. They will thrive in similar conditions to azaleas. Applying garden sulfur, ferrous sulfate, or ammonium sulfate or by mulching with pine needles, pine bark, oak leaf mold, or peat are all great ways to acidify your soil if necessary.
Propagation From Cuttings
If you a looking to replicate a specific parent plant, rooting stem cuttings is the quickest way to do achieve a plant that flowers early.
To propagate by cutting, you will need a potting mix of equal parts soil or compost, and perlite. Cuttings can be started in their own containers, or in a single container together, at least 2” apart. Choose a container that is about 6” deep to allow for proper root development.
Rooting camellias is done most effectively using new growth, which appears after the blooming season, generally in late Spring. Take your cuttings from healthy, new growth, making a slanted cut directly behind the 5th or 6th leaf node.
Remove all but the newest set of leaves and dip the bare stem in rooting hormone. Place the end of the cutting into a hole about 2” deep and gently firm the planting medium to hold the cutting in place.
As an added measure, you can create a greenhouse effect by placing a plastic bag or cover over your cuttings and then setting them in indirect sunlight. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy and check regularly for mold.
After roughly 3 months, your cutting should be held in place by some new roots, gently pull upwards on the plant, being careful only to pull hard enough to see if there is tension within the soil. If there is, congratulations, you’ve successfully propagated a camellia!
Propagation from Layering
This method is similar to propagation by cutting, but rather than removing a limb from the parent plant, this method leaves the cutting intact until roots are formed. Layering should be initiated in the springtime.
To propagate by layering, find a branch with new growth. A branch of 18”-24” is ideal. At the place on the branch that you intend to remove it from the parent plant, score the branch all the way around, and then do this once more a few inches from the first scoring.
Between the two slits you have made, remove the green bark, so that the white layer underneath is exposed. Using a sheet of plastic wrap or a nylon stocking, wrap a handful of sphagnum moss around the exposed branch, and secure it in place. Secure the wrapping in place with electrical tape.
Check on your medium weekly to make sure it remains damp. You can use an eye dropper to re-moisten the medium as needed. It should take 2-3 months for enough roots to form that your cutting will survive on its own. When the roots have formed and become visible, you can remove the cutting from the parent plant and plant it at the chosen site.
Propagation By Grafting
Grafting is a slightly more complex a process than other forms of propagation. However, it’s a great plan if you are looking to reduce the amount of time before your new plant blooms. For this process, grafting wax and a very sharp cutting knife are helpful tools.
Grafting is something that you might do if you are hoping to grow a species with a weaker root system. For instance, Sasanqua has a very strong a hardy root system, while Japonica is more delicate.
By grafting a branch from the Japonica of your choosing, onto the root system of a more resilient Sasanqua, you can achieve a plant that looks and behaves in an optimal fashion.
How to Graft
The process of grafting begins with the plant which possesses the desirable root system. Make a diagonal cut in the trunk, approximately 4”-6” above the soil. Using a sharp cutting knife, split the trunk of the root plant down about 2 inches from the top, taking care to not break either side. Using a hammer to tap the knife gently may be helpful.
Remove a cutting from the plant you wish to propagate with one leaf and a bud forming. More than one leaf will require the plant to draw more nutrients from the parent plant than are immediately available and may cause your graft to fail.
Cut the stem on a diagonal to expose as much of the cambium layer of the branch. This is the part of the branch which produces the most growth stimulating hormones. Your cutting should be shaped in such a way that you can wedge it into the cut in the trunk of the parent plant.
The cambium layers of each stem need to touch one another for grafting to be successful. If these layers of the plants are not in contact with one another, the likelihood of a successful grafting is low.
Wedge the branch that you have chosen to graft, into the cut you have made in the parent plant. Secure the two pieces together using a zip tie or other fastener. Wrap the joint tightly with tape; electrical, floral or medical tape will all work well.
Create a greenhouse effect over the graft using a plastic bag or bottle with a hole cut in it to allow for growth and air circulation. Your graft will need to be kept moist until new growth is apparent. When in doubt, leave it longer than seems necessary. 4 to 5 months should be an adequate length of time.
So, you have your camellia ready to add to your garden. Now let’s discuss the proper way to incorporate them into your landscape to insure maximum health, growth, and bloom.
Mature camellias are low maintenance, as long as care is taken to plant them correctly. Once they are in a good spot, they should thrive with little to no upkeep save for occasional pruning and fertilizing.
Camellias don’t like to be planted too deeply. Much like a citrus tree, a camellia’s root system should be as close to the surface as possible. A good rule of thumb for planting them is 2:1. Dig your hole only as deep, and twice as wide as the root ball.
Camellias enjoy moistly, but well-drained soil. You will want to water them in to set them, and fill in the hole loosely with soil, don’t overfill or pack the soil tightly around the roots.
Most species enjoy indirect or filtered sunlight. The dappled sun coming through a taller tree is ideal. Camellias can tolerate a few hours of direct light in the morning but should be protected from harsh afternoon sun as this will inhibit the development of flowers.
The exception to this rule is the Sasanquas. Sasanquas enjoy more sunlight and can tolerate direct sun for slightly more than half of the day.
Camellias enjoy regular watering, but they thrive in well-drained soil. Overwatering, or planting your camellia in an area that remains wet can result in root rot.
If you live in a climate that gets a moderate to the high amount of rainfall, your camellias shouldn’t need excessive watering once they have established roots. During dry spells, watering may be needed, but they truly do maintain themselves quite well if care is taken to plant them in the right place.
While your plants are establishing themselves, take care not to let them dry out for very long. They do need to remain most during their first year.
Camelias enjoy somewhat acidic (pH 5.5 to 6.5) soil that is high in organic matter. If you need to raise the pH there are a handful of ways to do so. Adding dried coffee grinds to the soil around the plant raises the pH. Adding a material that contains some form of lime is also effective.
Soil acidity can be tested using a pH meter. However, if you have hydrangeas on your property, there is a fun way to tell how acidic your soil is. If your Hydrangea blooms are blue, your soil is acidic (below 6). If the blooms are pink, your soil is alkaline (above 7) and if they are somewhere in between, you may have purple blooms!
Climate and Temperature
Most species thrive in zones 7-10 with a few exceptions. The Chrysantha species is only hardy in zone 11, meanwhile, some Sasanquas varieties are able to survive in zone 6. Both situations would move camellia into a higher maintenance category, but it can be done.
Camellias are evergreen, so they do not have a period of dormancy, but during the hotter months, they do not bloom.
Once camellias are established, they will not require excessive fertilizing. They will generally survive without fertilization, but they will flourish much better with a regular fertilizing routine.
Fertilizer should be applied 3 times per year around the base of the plant, out to the drip line. Make sure to rake back any mulch around the base of the plant before applying fertilizer.
While your plants are young and you want to promote more rapid growth, choose a higher nitrogen formula, such as 12-4-8 or 10-10-10. Once your plants have reached maturity and are maintaining their height, you can reduce to a 4-8-8 formula.
Camellias require very little maintenance once established, but here are some things you can do to keep them looking their best. Let’s take a look at the most important aspects of maintenance and care.
Camellias like a regular supply of water, and especially need to be kept moist while young and establishing their root systems. They do not like to be overwatered though, as this can cause their roots to rot.
The most important times of year to make sure your plants stay watered are in the winter when blooms are present, and in the summer, when buds are forming.
Once plants are established, they will be able to sustain themselves most of the year on rainwater. In times of drought, they may need some assistance.
Pruning should be done in late Spring. Pruning doesn’t need to take place every year. Every few years, thinning out the interior branches will let sunlight into the interior and will encourage the production of larger blooms.
To encourage growth, prune an inch from the ends of branches. If you wish to keep your Camellia at its present size, 3 inches can be trimmed from the ends of the branches.
If you wish to reduce the size of your plant, you will have to cut back on the number of blooms for the next season. To reduce the size and reshape the plant, trim branches back by 1/3 to ½ of their length. When new growth appears, thin out some of the interior branches. This will help to strengthen the new limbs.
As with most flowering plants, deadheading (removing the spent flowers) will encourage the plant to put more energy into new blooms and will keep your camellia blooming for a longer period of time.
- C. Japonica ‘Kramer Supreme’ shows it’s deep red, full peony form blooms from November through March.
- C.Sasanqua ‘Mine No Yuki’ popularly known as ‘Snow on the Mountain’ is a fall blooming variety with pure white blooms with exposed stamens making them popular among bees.
- C. Sasanqua ‘Moonshadow’ is a stunning double bloom with an ombre appearance with bright pink edges gradually fading to a pale pink at the center.
- C. Sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ looks precisely the way it sounds. Resembling an Amaryllis bloom, the bright red single blooms have bright yellow visible stamens and forms an impressive hedge, growing up to 15 feet tall.
- C.Japonica ‘Lavinia Maggie’ looks like it came straight from the Queen of Heart’s garden. The 5” blooms have splashes of deep pink against a palette of pure white.
- C. Japonica ‘Debutante‘ is a highly sought after variety that flaunts gorgeous, light pink blooms that are similar in appearance to peonies.
- C. Sasanquas ‘Cleopatra’ is a breathtaking variety that shows off ethereal pink blooms early in the season.
Pests and Diseases
Like other flowering shrubs, camellias can succumb to different pests and diseases. While there are many different ailments that can plague these beautiful plants, there are some that are a bit more common than others. Let’s take a deeper look.
Spider Mites and Aphids
Spider mites and aphids are the two main pest related issues for camellias. Spider mites dwell on the underside of leaves, and can be detected by holding a sheet of paper beneath a leaf and tapping the top of the leaf to shake off the mites. An indication of aphids will show in the way of curled, crinkled, or yellowing leaves.
Both pests can be treated with insecticides. Neem oil is a good alternative to insecticide if you want to maintain the flower’s safety and usefulness to pollinators.
When applied at night, it will kill the pests, and once it has dried it is harmless to bees and other pollinators, who mainly harvest during the day. Lady bugs love to eat aphids as well, so encouraging or bringing lady bugs to your garden will keep aphids to a minimum.
Early blooming varieties tend to be safer from blight, which is characterized by brown splotches on blooms. Petal blight is carried by spores capable of travelling up to 5 miles. It is not treatable and pruning affected blooms only slows the effect.
Dieback is a fungal disease sometimes caused by unclean pruning shears. The use of fungicides can be helpful. Affected branches should be cut away with clean shears. If the lower part of the plant is affected, it can kill the entire plant.
Camellias are as varied as they are beautiful and make a delightful addition to garden landscapes. Their cultivation over thousands of years makes the popular varieties hardy and adaptable.
Camellias winter blooming characteristic makes them highly desirable in many of the most noteworthy gardens in the Southern United States as well as much of the South Asian continent. With a moderate amount of effort, Camellias will bring a wealth of color and beauty to your landscape throughout the winter months.