The lovely waxen blooms of the camellia have for years been the symbol of southern elegance. Alabama has even chosen it for their state flower. Camellias have a reputation for being somewhat difficult to grow, but if you’re willing to meet their needs, they’ll reward you with a long bloom season just when you need it most, between fall and spring.
There’s a lot to know about growing this beautiful ornamental shrub. The tips here will get you started. For more information, visit the website of the International Camellia Society (internationalcamellia.org)
Though they’re strongly associated with the southern U.S., camellias are actually native to southeast Asia. They’re part of a large genus (Camellia), whose most famous member is one that’s regularly dunked in teacups around the world. C. sinensis flowers may be insignificant, but the leaves are grown and harvested to make tea of all kinds.
The beloved flowering varieties are more common in gardens. Most are either forms of C. japonica or C. sasanqua, or a hybridized variety. It’s important to know the species type, since C. sasanqua blooms in mid-fall to early winter, while C. japonica flowers from mid-winter through early spring. Hybrids can fall into either category, so be sure to read up on the plant information before buying.
Both species have been cultivated into many hundreds of varieties, offering a huge array of flower colors and types, growth habits, fragrances, and more. There are choices to suit nearly any garden. Bear in mind that camellias are not particularly hardy, and can’t withstand very cold winters. In zones 7 – 10, they can be grown outdoors. In colder climates, try growing them in containers that can be moved outdoors in summer, then move them into the house to enjoy their blooms in the fall and winter months.
All camellias need some protection from the hot afternoon sun as young plants. However, plants that receive no sun will struggle to flower. Morning sun and dappled afternoon shade are ideal. As the plants grow older, their own heavy foliage will provide protection from the sun for the roots.
Camellias require two important characteristics in their soil: slightly acidic and well-drained. Before planting, test the soil to determine its pH. Camellias grow best in a pH range of 5.5 to 6.5; high pH levels will cause stress and yellowing leaves. If your soil is too alkaline, you can either amend it regularly with an acidic fertilizer, or try growing camellias in pots so you can easily control the soil pH.
It’s also important to ensure that the area you choose has well-drained soil, because camellias hate wet feet. Avoid spots in your garden that are regularly soggy. Not sure if your soil drains well? Dig a hole about 12 inches wide and deep, and fill it with water. If it drains in 10 minutes or so, your soil is fast-draining and should work well for these flowering beauties.
Speaking of water, camellias (like most plants) need plenty of it when they’re young and establishing root systems. Because rain water is naturally slightly acidic, it’s perfect for watering in new shrubs. Tap water is an adequate substitute, but since regular application may change the acidity of the soil depending on your water quality, test the soil regularly in the beginning. After they’re established, camellias rarely need supplemental watering.
Camellias are a little picker about how they’re planted than most. If they’re planted too deeply or mulched too heavily, the stems can rot and kill the plant. Dig the planting hole the same depth as the root ball, then add a few inches of soil back into the hole to slightly decrease the depth. When you set the plant down into the hole, the top of the root ball should be slightly above the level of the surrounding dirt. Fill in the hole, sloping the fill dirt up to the top of the root ball without covering it. Mulch lightly, no more than about an inch.
In most areas, it’s best to plant camellias in the spring so they have a long warm season to establish themselves. In warm-winter climates, they can be added to the garden anytime, though it’s wise to avoid the hottest months of summer.
When to prune is based on what type of camellia you have. Sasanquas bloom in late fall, and start to set buds the spring before. Prune them immediately after flowering ends in early winter. Japonicas flower later, and can also be pruned just after their bloom season ends. Hybrids may flower at either time, so simply prune when the flowers are done.