Camellia flowers come in all sizes and shapes from a petite baby’s fist size to that of a man’s outspread hand.
Many people consider camellias to be the queen of plants. The glossy, dark green foliage never seems to wilt or die no matter how hot and dry the summer gets. They are a hardy evergreen shrub that prefers a temperate region. But they can withstand light frosts.
What the Flowers are Like
Flower colors range from a red that is nearly black, through all shades of pink to purest white and even yellow. Some are multi-colored with pink spots on white or vice-versa. Some have pink edging on the purest white petals.
Camellia flowers can be single, double or semi-double. The golden stamens at the centre are sometimes long and profuse and in other types shorter. Sometimes the stamens seem to mix with tiny central petals. You can get so many different varieties of camellias that it is possible to have them blooming in nearly every season of the year. Unfortunately, they cannot tolerate heavy frosts or snow.
Botanical and Common Name: Camellias
Hardiness Zones: Zone 7
Bloom Time: During the cool season, October-March
Color: Range from pure white to dark red
Plant Category: Camellias are woody perennials. Most camellia plants are shrub-sized but compact cultivars produce camellias suitable for ground cover, raised bed or container planting.
Foliage: The foliage of the camellia plant is dark green and glossy adding evergreen interest to the garden.
Growth Habit: Camellias are typically upright or slightly weeping in their growth habit.
Dimensions: 6-8’ tall
Light Requirements: Dappled shade
Soil Preference: slightly acidic (pH 6.0-6.5), well-drained but moist soil
Fertilizer: After the flowers fade, In the Spring. Using 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 fertilizer.
Varieties & Cultivars: Camellia japonica typically blooms in the spring. Camellia sasanqua tends to flower in the fall with fragrant autumn blooms. Camellia reticulate and C. oleifera tend to flower late winter. Many cultivars and hybrids have been created and some of the best for gardeners are mentioned here.
Camellia japonica ‘Pink Perfection’: A commonly grown camellia, this long-time favorite of gardeners produces a long winter season of perfectly double, pink flowers. An heirloom camellia it has been a southern garden feature for over 150 years.
C. japonica ‘Adolphe Audusson’: A deep red camellia whose blooms appear earlier in the spring than other cultivars. 15’x12’ shrub.
C japonica ‘April Dawn’: One of the nicest, semi-double camellia blooms is the pale white and pink variegated flower that appears on this 6’x4’ shrub February through April. An upright, vigorous and cold hardy camellia.
C. japonica ‘Brilliant’: An amazing upright camellia that grows slowly to 10’ but only a couple feet wide and produces amazing, formal double, blood red flowers that are impressive. Can be hard to find now but is worth tracking down for a small garden space since the spread is so narrow compared to most camellias.
C. japonica ‘Yuletide’: A popular red, single flower camellia that is often blooming for Christmas, giving it the name. ‘Yuletide’ is a medium sized camellia shrub.
Camellia hybrida ‘Polar Ice’: A white flowering camellia with 3” flowers that grows 6-8’ tall and is a cold hardy cultivar that can survive to zone 6.
Camellia oleifera ‘Showa-no-Sakae’: This ruffled blossom camellia can be allowed to grow prostrate on the ground or trained up a wall or fence. This camellia is not as cold hardy and should be well protected south of zone 8 or 7b but the flowers are lovely rose-pink and worth the effort if you can grow them.
Camellia sasanqua ‘Chansonette Spreading’: This camellia is a low-growing, cascading form camellia that can be easily grown in a container if your soil is not acidic enough. The bright pink camellia blooms look amazing if planted in mass. Only 3’ tall by 6’ wide!
With over 1,000 known varieties and cultivars, anyone who has ever grown these lovely shrubs has a favorite. Leave a comment below to tell us about your favorite Camellia shrub!
Cold Hardy Camellia Selections
While most camellias are only hardy to zone 7, gardeners in more severe climates will be glad to know about the breakthroughs in camellia breeding that allows for a wider selection than ever before of cold-hardy camellias.
Camellia Breeders Ackerman and Parks
These camellia enthusiasts from Maryland and North Carolina have been two of the most instrumental forces in creating a selection of cold-hardy camellia cultivars for modern gardeners. For Bill Ackerman, the journey began after two severe winters in a row killed all the camellias in the collection at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC except one, a lone survivor. This surviving plant, named ‘Lu Shan Snow’ in 1994, became the foundation parent for many of the hardiest cultivars available today.
Clifford Park worked through the 60s and 70s in North Carolina to develop a series of cold hardy camellias of his own, called the April series. The ‘April’ camellias will survive temperatures down to -17 degrees Celcius but the flower buds will not survive that extreme temperature.
Cold Hardy Ackerman-Bred Camellias
‘Snow Flurry’ – One of the first releases from 1987, this camellia blooms a medium-sized, white flower with a peony or anemone form. Early to late autumn flowers grace the plant that has been known to regularly survive up to -12 degrees Celcius.
‘Pink Icicle’ – Released in 1987 as well, this cultivar has ‘Lu Shan Snow’ as a direct parent. The clear, pink blooms are larger than the flowers on ‘Snow Flurry’ and the entire plant is hardier surviving temperatures of -20 degrees Celcius.
‘Winter’s Toughie’ – Released in 2001, this camellia is one of the most winter-hardy camellias to date, surviving temperatures of -26 degrees Celcius. The bright, rosy-pink blooms open in mid-winter and have a double or anemone form.
Cold Hardy Park-Bred Camellias
‘April Dawn’ – From 1993, this Park, the cold-hardy camellia is very unique in that it has multicolored flower blossoms that appear mid to late spring.
‘April Rose’ – Also released in 1993, this is one of the hardiest of the April series and has a rose-red or dark pink colored flower. The camellia blooms appear mid to late spring and are double-form blossoms. This camellia shrub is also very compact growing and is a more suitable camellia than some of the others for small garden spaces.
‘April Blush’ – This camellia blooms in early spring with large, semi-double flowers in a delicate pink shade. The lighter flower tones stand out in an early season garden against the dark, evergreen leaves.
Beginners Guide to the Container Growing of Camellias
Camellias love moist acid soils and a sheltered position in dappled shade. A west facing position is desirable as the early morning sun which follows a frosty night scorches the flowers turning them to mush. They will only grow in soil which is lime-free or neutral, but having an alkaline soil doesn’t prevent the gardener growing these exotic flowering evergreens. The answer is to grow them in containers which have the added benefit of enabling them to be moved into the ideal position at the flowering time.
Choice of Containers for Camellias
There is a wide range of containers on the market which may be used for growing camellias, including those made from decorative plastic, terracotta, natural stone, glazed pottery, and wood. The choice comes down to individual tastes with the one proviso that for successful growth any pot, tub or urn should be at least 45cm in both diameter and depth.
Growing Medium for Camellias
Plants in containers don’t grow well in garden soil. For camellias always use a lime-free ericaceous compost (growing medium) which has been specially blended to be free draining and acidic. Place some rocks or coarse gravel in the bottom of the container to ensure sufficient drainage
Care of Camellias in Pots
Don’t plant or re-pot camellias any deeper than they were growing in their original container. Leave a gap of 2.5-5cm from the rim of the pot to allow room for watering. Water regularly especially during dry spells in summer, because dry roots at this time result in the new flower buds dropping off in winter. Apply an ericaceous liquid fertilizer once or twice a month in spring and summer. Pruning of camellias is minimal, simply remove any wayward or leggy branches after flowering. Dead-head camellias regularly as the flowers fade.
Some Camellias to Grow in Containers
The growing of camellias by the amateur gardener was given a great boost by the work of the late Mr. J C Williams of Caerhays Castle about 50 years ago. By crossing Camellia japonica and Camellia saluenensis he developed a new race which became known as Camellia x williamsii. This hardy group of camellias is particularly recommended for container growing and contains many notable cultivars including:
‘J.C.Williams’ which makes an upright open bush with somewhat arching branches. The deep, dark, shining green leaves are roughly oval in shape and the stalkless single flowers which are phlox pink in color and up to 10 cm across appear in leaf-axils in late winter or early spring.
‘Anticipation’ is a narrow upright shrub bearing very large, peony shaped crimson flowers in early spring.
‘Donation’ is compact and erect with large semi-double pink flowers in late winter/early spring.
‘Galaxie’ makes a rounded shrub and carries double, light pink flowers with thin red stripes and streaks in mid-spring.
Prune Camellias Early for Optimal Spring Blooms
Camellias of all ages can be lightly pruned any time of year, but a more thorough, sometimes even drastic pruning, must be done before spring growth and blossoming occurs. This is late-autumn to late-winter; however, in warmer climates, early blooming camellias are known to blossom as early as February, so be sure to prune before blossoms appear. A camellia plant’s most intense pruning of its annual growth is best done between November and mid-January.
Don’t Skip Important Steps When Pruning Camellias
Light Pruning Basics
Cut away the lowest branches where blossoms are more likely to brown and spoil
Cut out branches that point inward toward the trunk or bump into other branches
Create an airy, tree shape which will typically fill in with next spring’s growth
Prune just in front of new buds when shortening branches
Angle all cuts open toward the sky rather than angling toward the ground so that moisture and sunlight are easily accepted
Removing Branches Altogether
First, make a small (1/2 a thumbnail’s length) cut on the underside of the branch just above the ridge – the slight bump in the trunk where branch vees off from the trunk.
Next, make a through-cut, slicing off the branch, just above the small cut, so that, the small cut stays on the camellia. This keeps the cut away from where the branch joins the bark of the trunk, otherwise known as the ridge. This prevents diseases from entering and do not damage the trunk.
Pruning is good for camellias. They can even handle radical prunes. In fact, a rather drastic shearing can bring new life to an old camellia. The most radical pruning, known as the ‘hat rack’, if done before spring, will help an old plant sprout new leaf buds during growing seasons. Cutting back to the inner structure of the plant – eliciting the image of a hat rack – serves to re-nourish an undernourished, old plant. Be sure to follow the guidelines above when doing any prune, especially a hat rack prune.
Any camellia can be transplanted – no matter how large or how small; yet, the proper time of year, must be adhered to as this one factor could mean the difference between a sick plant or a successful transplant. In most climates, the correct time of year is the same as for a thorough pruning.
For warmer climates and early-blooming camellias, be sure to have relocations completed by late-January – allowing plenty of time before spring. Camellias will adapt to a move better during rainy seasons requiring time for ‘rooting in’ to a new area before the heat of summer’s sun.
Prune Before Transporting Camellias to a New Area
Prune proportionally, in direct relation to the amount of root system lost in the transport.
A young, smaller plant will not lose many of its roots. It may be possible to move the plant without losing any roots, therefore, only a light pruning is required.
If a camellia is large and its root system extensive, it will lose a good portion of its roots in the move.
A heavy or drastic prune is required before moving. This makes sense because roots nourish foliage. After a reduction in the root system, foliage nourishment requirements must also be reduced causing less stress on the plant.
Going to the extent of cutting most of the plant’s foliage – at the proper time of year, before moving, will ensure that roots which are moved with the plant can provide sufficient nourishment allowing for new growth while establishing themselves in their new hole.
Three more procedures increase the success of a camellia’s transplant:
Wrench the plant – if possible – the spring before its move to a new home. Drive a spade down into the dirt about 1-1/2 feet out from its trunk. This will cause the camellia’s roots to ball within that perimeter. By winter – the proper time to transplant – dig the camellia out at a radius (from the trunk) of 1-1/2 feet or a diameter of 3 feet around the plant’s base. This will ensure that a strong root system is moved along with the plant.
Keep soil and roots moist at all times during transplant, and do not keep plants out of the soil for long. Transplant immediately to the new hole. Be sure to enrich its new hole with composted mulch for added success. Water newly transplanted camellias immediately.
Face camellias in the same direction as in its previous spot. Tie a ribbon, piece of yarn, or a twist tie to the plant’s northern face and adhere to this position when planting in its new home. This simple trick prevents harsh leaf burn from damaging newly transplanted camellia.
Using Camellias in the Garden Landscape
Companion Plants: Camellias are shallow rooted so avoid planting near other shallow-rooted plants such of maple or birch. They enjoy under story levels of pine woods and can be easily combined with other woodlands, acidic loving plants such as rhododendron and azalea.
Seasons of Interest: Camellias provide year-round interest. Beautiful flowers, sometimes fragrant, are the jewel of this plant and appear in autumn, winter or early spring depending on the specific cultivar. Camellia foliage is an attractive glossy green that provides winter interest as well since it is evergreen and lasts all year.
Uses in the Garden: Camellias are especially suited to foundation plantings, background planting along a fence or wall, or to adorn the background of a sitting area in your garden.