Camellia is a significant agricultural crop for the East as C. sinensis leaves are the source of the tea beverage we enjoy today! Most of the tea plants are grown in the cool mountains of China, hence the old saying, “Not for all the tea in China!” The Camellia is also seen as a lucky plant for the Chinese New Year and flowers are used as sacred offerings to the Gods.

Camellias came to America in 1797, from China, and were cultivated in glass houses in Boston, New York and Philadelphia; and offered for sale to the public in 1807 as hot house plants and shortly thereafter as outdoor plants in the South.

One of the locations that planted the Asian beauty was Magnolia Gardens and Plantation (Magnolia-on-the-Ashley) in Charleston, South Carolina founded in 1676 and prior to 1900, Magnolia Gardens had identified and propagated over 350 varieties.  This garden opened to the public in the 1870’s and now has over 25,000 Camellias and 3,000 cultivars.  So how do you say Camellia?  Some pronounce it CA-MEE-YA while others pronounce it as CA-MEAL-YA, and yes both are acceptable!

Winter is the best time for planting Camellias as they will be in bud and/or blooming, so you can see the color and choose a desired plant.  The exposure for planting should be north or east, never south or west unless adjacent trees filter the hot summer sun.  Soil should be well drained, so I always recommend using expanded shale and Arbor Gate Organic Fertilizer to ensure an excellent start to rooting into the new location.  Do not plant in low drainage areas as once these slow growing evergreens get root rot, they never really recover.

Tip for planting: Dig hole 2 times as wide and 2 times as deep as the root ball of the plant.  After getting the initial soil out, chop and break up the soil in the bottom of the hole as deep as possible, but leave the soil there.  For a 5 gallon plant you would use half of a 40# bag of expanded shale, so you could plant (2) 5 gallon plants with one bag. After loosening and chopping the clay in the bottom of the hole, put ¼ of the bag of shale with 1# (think coffee can) of AG organic fertilizer and mix all together with the native soil.  A great test to understand why you need shale, is grab a handful of native soil and squeeze it, when you open your hand, a clod is what you are left with as you have pressed all the air spaces out of the soil and by adding shale this porous rock keeps the air spaces in the clay soil.  (See article on Mastering Your Soil by me, for more detail on planting, air spaces, and shale)

Back to Camellias!   There are two main species of Camellias grown here; Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua and you need to plant both for extended winter bloom!

The most popular Camellia is the C. japonica because of the different flower forms, colors, bi-colors, and 3 month bloom period.  Flower color ranges from white to pink to red and variegated. Variegated flowers can be 2 to 3 different colors with blotches or a single color with artistic cerise striations on the petals. Flower forms are single, semi-double, double, and formal double. Popular varieties are: White by the Gate, Professor Sergeant, Royal Velvet, Debutant, and La. Peppermint, and Vestito Rosso.

Camellia sasanqua has smaller leaves and small flowers but many flowers open at once beginning around Thanksgiving.  Sasanqua flowers have one flower form with exposed yellow stamens in the center.  Sasanqua is faster growing, more upright habit, can take more sun, and blooms before the japonica group.  Some popular varieties are: Kanjiro, Maiden’s Blush, Yuletide (red flower Christmas bloomer) October Magic group, Seafoam, Coral Delight, and Setsugekka.

Dwarf varieties are great foundation plants for afternoon shade gardens as they are slow growing and don’t need much pruning.  Dwarf varieties get 2-4’ tall in colors of pink, red, white and burgundy.  Varieties include Shi Shi Gashera, Sparkling Burgundy, White Doves, Reverend Ida, and Hot Flash.

Camellias have luxurious dark green foliage and flower most of the winter, so what better plant to add to your shaded garden. These evergreen plants are basically trouble free if planted in proper exposure with amended soil with shale rock.  Top dressing (adding soil 1-2”) the root system with organic fertilizer and soil in the spring after blooming will reinvigorate the plant after flowering.  Do not limb up your camellias as you will be reducing the amount of flowers you have.

Watch for Problems

Camellia tea scale, root rot, and dieback are three potential problems that gardeners may experience with their first Camellia.  Tea scale is an armored insect that lives under the leaves sucking the green chlorophyll out of the leaf resulting with yellow spots on the top of the leaf. Pluck those infected leaves off, put in a bag, and dispose.  Spray an oil or insecticidal soap on the underside of the leaves as this is where the pests live and normally occur on the bottom branches.  Spraying on the top of the leaves is ineffective.

Root rot symptoms mirror dieback and once root rot starts, it is hard to overcome.  Pull out the plant and rework the soil adding lots of expanded shale and/or relocating if in a wet boggy area.

Twig die back is caused by a fungus and called Camellia Dieback. The symptom shows as dried up stems with no leaves on top or side of the plant.  The fungus causing this disease must enter susceptible camellia tissue through wounds. The fungus may enter through a leaf-scar in the spring during the time of camellia leaf-fall. Other points of entry may include wounds caused by pruning, lawn mower injury, etc.

So brighten up your winter garden by adding a few stars either in the ground as a specimen plant or in a container with flowers as a base.  The Arbor Gate has the best selection of Camellias over all nurseries in the Houston area, so come see us!