Growing Camellias in Your GardenCamellia flowers are the dependable stars of mild gardens in winter and early spring
Camellias have been prized possessions of gardeners for decades. They thrive in mild climates from California to Florida and are available in thousands of cultivars. These broadleaved evergreen shrubs have durable, glossy foliage and gorgeous flowers. The most common species of camellias are Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua.
Commonly, 7-10. New varieties bred from C. oleifera such as ‘Survivor’ and ‘Winter’s Rose’, are hardy to Zone 6.
Most shrubs reach a height between 6 and 12 feet, and just about as wide.
Part shade to full shade. Most prefer dappled light, but a few varieties need (or tolerate) more sun than others. In general, red-flowered varieties can withstand more sun than white varieties.
Different varieties of camellias bloom from late fall to mid-spring. Stagger plantings of early, mid- and late varieties and you can have flowers from November through April or May. C. sasanqua tends to bloom earlier, mid-fall to early winter. C. japonica blooms from mid-winter to spring. Hybrid bloom times will vary depending on variety.
Flower color and characteristics:
Beautiful flowers, mainly white and shades of pink or red, and various combinations. They come in various shapes: anemone, single, semi-double, formal double, rose-form double and peony form.
Camellias are long-lived plants, with some living more than 100 years.
When to plant:
In zones 8-10, camellias can be planted in the fall, winter or spring. However, in zone 6 or 7, they are better planted in spring to allow their roots time to establish before colder weather sets in.
Where to plant:
Site in a location protected from wind. In hot climates, locate where they are protected from bright light or leaves may be scalded by the sun.
How to plant:
Plant level with the soil surface; especially avoid planting too deep. The planting hole should be as deep as the rootball and twice as wide. Refill and pack down the bottom 3-4 inches of the hole. Center the plant and fill, sloping the soil up the sides. The top of the rootball should be 2-4 inches above the soil level. Don’t cover the top of the rootball, but mulch around the plant with no more than 1 inch covering the rootball. Water well.
Planting in containers:
Camellias are great for well-draining containers and should be planted with potting mix containing 50 percent or more organic material. Choose smaller, slower-growing varieties.
Should be well-drained with a pH of 6 to 6.5 (slightly acid). Keep it moist.
Keep roots cool with a 2-inch layer of mulch such as pine straw or ground bark. Avoid “mulch volcanoes”; as Celeste Richard, executive director of the American Camellia Society, says, “mulch out, not up.” Feed with one of many available camellia fertilizers or a general 10-10-10 fertilizer in spring after the flowers have dropped. Avoid feeding camellias after July, as late feeding can cause bud drop.
Water regularly for the first couple of years, then keep soil moist, but not too wet. Provide summer water in dry climates.
Pruning is rarely needed, but it helps to remove crossover limbs or diseased/dead wood. This can be done after blooming has finished in spring.
For pests, natural products are available, such as neem oil. Camellia petal blight affects flowers and buds, turning them an unsightly brown. This is best avoided by removing spent flowers and not letting old flowers linger on the soil surface. Dispose of flowers in garbage; do not compost, as composting will likely spread the fungal spores.
PICTURES OF CAMELLIA VARIETIES
1. 'PROFESSOR SARGENT'
In Florida one of the first japonicas to bloom in fall. An excellent red camellia with densely petaled, compact blooms. The deep crimson flowers are globular with an incredible solid, compact, curved center with a dozen or so wide, slightly rumpled “guard” petals.
2. ‘MRS. D.W. DAVIS’
Originated by D.W. Davis in the small north Florida town of Seffner, first bloomed in 1951. It easily has the largest flower buds of any camellia—often reaching the size of a golf ball. Blush pink flowers are very delicate, sometimes reaching 6 inches across.
3. ‘MARCHIONESS OF EXETER’
Very profuse bloomer, very full and showy. The flower is a complete double with cupped individual petals, soft rose in color with just a hint of velvet red.
4. ‘ALBA SUPERBA'
Medium-sized white, semidouble flowers on a very vigorous, upright shrub.
Perhaps the most elegant camellia at Leu Gardens. Flowers nearly defy description: 5-inch-wide cerise-red blossoms composed of full-bodied individual petals. Flowers remain on the plant for a very long time, eventually taking on a bluish cast on the edges. A bold and robust shrub with large leathery leaves and an open, strong branching habit.
Cute little miniature flower with flowers shaded from deep red on the outside to pale pink and white-streaked petals at the center. Very slow-growing shrub.
8. ‘GRAND SLAM’
Brilliant bright red flower with golden, upright stamens. Received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1975.
Robert Bowden says, “I’m a sucker for the graceful, fluid lines of this flower with its semidouble snow white, long, narrow petals that almost look like porcelain.” Branches are somewhat pendulous with long, narrow, glossy dark green leaves, finely serrated.
10. ‘MADAME DE STREKALOFF’
Bright pink streaked in deep rose pink; upright gold stamens offer a crisp contrast to delicate cup-shaped flowers. Shrub has a handsome rounded form of medium height (8 to 10 feet).
11. ‘PINK PERFECTION’ (also known as C. rusticana ‘Otome’)
The grand lady of the Southern garden and a classic pink camellia for any garden. Long bloom season. Shrub is large (to 15 feet tall), open and upright. A must have if you like old-fashioned varieties.
12. ‘HERME’ (also known as ‘Hikarugenji’)
Blooms late in the season with peony-type flowers of rosy red and broad margins of bright white. Attractive narrow leaves on an upright plant.
A favorite at Leu Gardens. Large, semidouble, light pink flowers, striped with carmine red. The shrub is compact but very vigorous and upright—a good garden plant.
In his book, Plant This Instead!, Troy B. Marden recommends the following cold-hardy varieties, which can be grown in zone 6:
- ‘April Remembered’
- ‘April Blush’
- ‘April Snow’
- ‘April Kiss’
- ‘April Rose’
- ‘Korean Fire’
DESIGNING WITH CAMELLIAS
Camellias are versatile in the landscape—use as single specimen plants or informal screen, and they are great in containers. Robert Bowden, director of Leu Gardens in Orlando, Florida, home to one of America’s largest collections, offers these tips:
- Please don’t plant them too close together! Let them stand on their own. They are elegant, regal plants and deserve lots of space: a minimum of 15 feet all round.
- Snip off as many blooms as you like to use indoors. Cut flowers in the early morning shortly after they open, and float them in a bowl of water placed on a low table. For interior floral design inspiration, see more here.
- Buy one with the shape you like—upright, oval, round—and plant it in a location where you don’t have to prune.
Tom Johnson, executive director of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, adds:
- Give them room to grow. While a few varieties are shorter and most are slow growing, “camellias are trees.” The collection at Magnolia includes specimens 10 to 30 feet tall, some with 8-inch trunks.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Are camellias deer resistant?
Mature plants are not usually on the preferred menu of deer, although sometimes young plants will suffer damage. For this reason, you may wish to protect your newly planted camellias with some type of barrier. Keep in mind that no plant is completely safe from harm if other food sources are not available. Additionally, deer in some regions may graze on them, while in other regions they will leave them untouched. Learn more about deer resistant plants.
Are camellias poisonous?
They are not poisonous, making them safe garden plants for your children and pets. In fact, the leaves of Camellia sinensis are used to make tea. However, if eaten in large quantities, the plant’s caffeine content could cause problems such as elevated heart rate. For more safe plant choices, see 20 Common Plants Safe for Cats & Dogs.
Are camellias fast growing?
Generally, they grow at a medium pace for an evergreen plant, with most putting on about 4 to 8 inches a year. If your heart is set on one, select a sasanqua which will grow faster than a japonica. ‘Kanjiro’ may be a good cultivar to try—a gardener in Atlanta reported hers putting on more than 4 feet in just three years (an average of 16 inches a year). Keep in mind that growth rate varies wildly depending on zone, exposure, soil, and other conditions. If you need something that matures at a faster rate you should consider fast-growing deciduous plants for filtered light such as sweetshrub (Calycanthus), hydrangeas, spireas, elderberry, forsythia. Evergreen alternatives include heavenly bamboo, osmanthus, cherry laurel, and Solanum rantonnetii.
Are camellias fragrant?
Only a few are scented—consider one of these varieties if locating near a door or window: ‘High Fragrance’, ‘Cinnamon Cindy’, or ‘Kramer’s Supreme’.
Why is my camellia not flowering?
Make sure it's getting enough water in summer and regular water year-round in order to produce healthy buds. Mulch will help maintain soil moisture. Late (after July) or excessive fertilizer can also cause bud drop.
- Camellias: The Complete Guide to Cultivation and Use by Jennifer Trehane.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias by Stirling MacOboy.
- Check out the American Camellia Society website.
- For more information or to plan a visit to Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando, call 407-246-2620 or see www.leugardens.org.
This article was adapted from its original version for use on the web.
Last updated: July 30, 2018