If there’s a reason for a gardener to move to the south, it’s the camellia. You might say that this flowering shrub, which has been in cultivation for more than 1000 years, is the southerner’s answer to the peony. Similarities between peonies and camellias include lushly petaled blooms, and a tendency to live for more than a century.
Genus Camellia, Family TheaceaeCommon ornamental cultivars include:
- C. japonica
- C. reticulata
- C. sasanqua
- C. saluenensis
Camellias are reliably hardy in zones 7-9, although the fall blooming ‘Winter’ series and spring blooming ‘April’ series of camellias are hardy in zone 6.
Dwarf camellias top out at 2 feet in height, but many camellias grow to a mature height between 6 and 12 feet. Camellias are slow growing, and specimens can exceed 20 feet after many decades if they have excellent growing conditions.
Camellia plants enjoy light or dappled shade, but they do not like to compete for water and nutrients with trees in close proximity. Camellia sasanqua cultivars can take more sun than japonica types.
Planting a mix of camellia varieties can provide the gardener with a succession of blossoms from September through May.
Camellias are evergreen shrubs with dark, glossy leaves. Flowers may be white, pink, red, or streaked, and blooms can be single or double. Camellia sinensis yields flowers that produce tea, but is not as ornamental as the other cultivars.
Camellias stand for faithfulness and longevity in the language of flowers, and make a lush addition to winter wedding flower arrangements.
- Know the mature size of your camellia, and plan accordingly if planting close to a window or home foundation.
- Plant camellias anytime except in the hottest summer months.
- Camellias require well-drained soil.
- An ideal soil pH for camellias is within the 6.0-6.5 range.
- If planting multiple camellia shrubs, space them at least 5 feet apart.
- It isn’t necessary to amend the backfill soil at planting time. Rather, lightly cultivate the top few inches of the soil, raking in compost or well-rotted manure.
- Proper fertilization is important for a large flower count. Apply a potassium-rich fertilizer in September to facilitate petal development. Apply a slow release nitrogen fertilizer in the spring to keep foliage dark green and lush.
- Prune camellias after flowering to keep the interior of the shrubs free of dead and non-blooming branches. Remove any branches that droop on the ground.
- Water camellias so that they are consistently moist. Dry periods that occur during bud development result in fewer flowers with a lower petal count. Drought stressed plants also open the door to spider mite infestation.
- Control scale pests with horticultural oil during non-blooming times.
- Apply a 3-inch layer of mulch to moderate soil temperatures, retain soil moisture, and stifle weeds.
- In large gardens, place camellias as anchor points along the garden path.
- Use the camellia as an espalier specimen.
- Pair camellias with azaleas for continuous blooms from winter through late spring.
- Plant a blooming blanket of pansies under camellias.
- Coordinate camellia blooms with complementary or contrasting spring bulbs, such as crocus or Virginia bluebells.
- April Dawn: Hardy in zone 6; white flowers streaked with pink
- Elfin Rose: Pale pink blooms appear in October and November
- Fragrant Pink: Warm winter days bring out the sweet fragrance of small pink flower clusters
- Francis Eugene Phillips: Highly sought after for ornamental fringed foliage; ruffled pink flowers
- Rebel Yell: White flower with red blotches and prominent stamens
- Sea Foam: A perfect looking white flower with a crisp form
- Yuletide: Red blooms on a compact, four-foot tall shrub