Camellias - Showy Flowers and Foliage To Match

Camellias are popular garden shrubs and there is now a huge variety available. A deficiency of many camellias is perfume although some are scented.

In general camellias are regarded as shade-loving plants but some are more sun-hardy than others. Several make excellent subjects for espaliering on fences and walls.

In their natural habitats, camellias grow in the dappled shade of taller trees, where winters were wet and cool followed by humid warmth in the spring and early summer growing period, and a dry, hot, late summer or early autumn to mature new growth and encourage bud-setting.

Camellias are adaptable and most varieties will grow in subtropical areas with summer rainfall, or in dry-spring and early-summer regions if protected from hot winds and hot afternoon suns.

Foliage colour and lustre suffer in full sun if plants are allowed to dry out for long periods or are exposed to salty winds. If grown in complete shade they may fail to flower. Double formal types in particular do not open their flowers if the early morning sun strikes buds that are moist with dew.

There are four types of camellia. The variety least grown is Camellia sinensis (or tea plant). This variety is the main constituent in commercial green tea products. While not as showy as the other variety, they are still pleasant and useful shrubs or container plants. Camellia sinensis generally has large, white, scented flowers.

Camellia sinensisCredit: Wikimedia

Camellia sinensis (above)

Camellia japonica varieties have beautiful flowers and glossy, oval, evergreen leaves. Whether you're looking for a hedge plant, tub or container specimen or just a shrub to fill a vacant spot in your garden, there will be a japonica variety to suit. Some types will cope with cold spells of around 10oF although the plant may lose its buds and flowers.

The tidy, attractive growth of japonica camellias fits them for formal gardens or for a bushland setting. Either way, they are perfect as individual specimens, to frame entrances or pathways, grouped as a background, or mixed with other shrubs. They go well with azaleas and both plants like the same conditions.

Often the flowers are large and showy but the plants have such comparatively large, pointed, deep green leaves that they make fine hedges and specimens even when not flowering. The foliage is always similar except for slight variations in shape, texture or depth of leaf colour. The flowers vary widely. There are five main flower types: single, semi-double, anemone, peony and formal double.

Camellia japonicaCredit: Wikimedia

Camellia japonica can grow to 25 feet but most stop at 10 to 12 feet and spread to 6 feet or a little more. They are slow-growing but can live for a century. Apart from removing dead, weak and straggly branches, the plants will need very little pruning. Severe pruning should only be attempted after flowering and before new growth begins.

Camellias are usually planted in autumn or spring but can be planted at other times if looked after. They are shallow-rooted plants and should not be planted too deeply nor mulched too heavily. Remove competition from tree roots and weeds, especially while the plants are becoming established. Most do best in partial shade. Insufficient shade can result in leaf scald or yellowing of the foliage. Water once a week until the plant is established then soak once a week during times of no rain. Feeding with an acidic plant food is recommended and a thin layer of mulch will help conserve moisture in the soil.

Camellia reticulatas differ from japonicas in the size of the flower and in the growth habit. The Reticulatas do their growing only after their flowering has nearly finished. They are a wonderful camellia with tough foliage. Its growth is rather spreading and open when unpruned. The huge ruffled flowers appear in a flush of two or three weeks in late winter or early spring. C.reticulata species prefer at least half shade or broken sunlight in warmer coastal districts. In cooler, temperate areas, they grow well in full sun, but heavy frost can damage buds.

Camellia sasanqua is a vigorous, adaptable garden shrub. Its foliage is smaller than other species but has more gloss and denser growth than saluenensis types, and is generally more spreading with arching canes. Sasanquas are autumn flowering and their charming display is usually over before any but the earliest japonicas are showing colour. Early varieties have just a single row of petals surrounding the cluster of yellow centre stamens. Now there are lovely semi-double and anemone-centred blooms. Sasanquas stand greater extremes of heat and cold than other species, and flowers in full sun or shade.

CamelliaCredit: Vince Evans - Copyright

Camellai sasanqua (above)

The medium to large Camellia saluenensis is a lovely but tender shrub. It is somewhat similar to reticulata but the leaves are smaller. Soft, single flowers cover the bush in late winter. White and various shades of pink are seen. It will thrive in a sunny or shady site provided it is sheltered. Neutral to acid soil which is well drained will suit it best. Crossings with Camellia japonica in 1925 resulted in the creation of x williamsii hybrids which are renowned for their blooms.

Camellias need fertile, well-drained soil with an acid reaction if they are to manage this vigorous growth. Because they like acid rich soil, do not apply lime near the plants, nor wood ash. Although wood ash is a good source of potash it also contains calcium.

When planting new camellias, work in plenty of well-rotted humus. Make the hole about twice the size of the root ball. If the roots have reached the edge of the root ball, tease them out with the fingers. Work friable soil around the roots during the filling on the hole. Apply water before completely filling in the hole. This will help settle the soil round the roots and will get rid of any air pockets. The level of the plant should be the same as it was in the container. If the soil at the planting site is shallow, plant the camellia shallow and build up the soil over the roots. This is preferable to digging down into the sub-soil and perhaps forming a sump which will hold water around the roots.

Mulching through the summer will protect shallow roots from drying out. Mulch can be of any fibrous material. Animal manure is good as it also supplies nutrients. If using a mulch without nitrogen such as straw, pine needles or wood chip, spread blood and bone fertiliser over the soil first to replace the nitrogen which is temporarily locked up by the bacteria which work on the mulch.

Fertiliser can be applied in small doses throughout the year. Apply fertiliser immediately after flowering and, for those shrubs which have a second growth period, another application at that time.

More plants are killed by over-feeding than by starvation. Liquid fertilisers used at monthly intervals will help retain the lovely green foliage for which these plants are renowned.

Camellias have a tidy growth pattern and only need pruning when they are beginning to over-grow their space. Prune in the spring after flowering. Shorten leaders and terminals each year, cutting just above a growth bud. This will force out growth from at least 3 buds below the cut and reduce the vigour of the leader.

Disbud those varieties which produce a cluster of flower buds. This will improve the quality of the blooms. Generally two buds in each group are left but if very large flowers are required, remove all buds bar one.

Camellias are not usually too bothered by insect pests however mites may cause discolouration of the leaf in summer. The mites feed on the underside of the leaves and can be controlled with a commercial preparation. Black aphis often appears in autumn and can be eradicated with Malathion. The most serious problem is root rot. Many plants are susceptible to root rot, but good drainage is usually the answer.