Southwest Georgia Master Gardener Ron Wolfe displays a Sandimas camellia shrub with blossums at his northwest Albany gardens. (Jan. 8, 2013)
“Queen of the winter flowers” is a quote from Stirling Macoboy’s book, “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias.” Indeed, the camellia and its various forms, colors, sizes, and blooming season make this flower a classic show piece for one’s garden and landscape.
The camellia was named by Linnaeus (author of the binomial system of naming plants) in honor of a Jesuit priest serving in the Philippines by the name of Joseph Kamel. The name Kamel in Latin means camellus. It is doubtful that Joseph Kamel ever saw a camellia. There are approximately 200 species of camellias known today, however, only a few are grown in the United States for their ornamental value.
The most popular camellia throughout the world is often not recognized as a member of this family. Theaceae. Camellia Sinensis is better known as the tea plant and all tea comes from this same plant. Whether you drink green tea, oolong tea or black tea, all of them are derived from the camellia sinensis. How this occurs is a story in itself for another time.
The total number of named camellia varieties is believed to be as high as 20,000 although this number increases continually with the addition of new varieties every year. The International Camellia Society published a register that is the accumulation of more than thirty years of research. This two volume book contains all but the latest camellia varieties from all over the world.
The popular species of camellia are sasanqua which is a fall blooming camellia and native to southern Japan. Some of these are small trees and grow up to 16 feet tall or more. The flowers are mostly white such as Winter Snowman or white with pink shading as Cleopatra or even red as Yuletide and all tend to have few petals. There are many other sasanquas with varied petal shapes and colors. This variety of camellia usually has smaller leaves than the Camellia Japonica. Sasanquas bloom from October through December and will grow either in sun or shade.
The Japonica is probably native to Japan as reflected in its name. This camellia can be a small shrub, a small tree or even a large tree 30 feet tall or more. These are the plants most often seen in our yards, gardens, and landscapes. They can have larger flowers with forms anywhere from single, semi double, anemone, peony, rose form double, and formal double. These plants also have larger shiny leaves. Camellia Japonicas have been hybridized more than any other camellia.
Reticulata. The earliest known plant of this species was Captain Rawes in England in the 1800’s. This did not hybridize with other camellias and no other reticulates were known in the western world until the 1940’s when they were brought out of the southern part of China. They have the largest flowers and cross quite well with japonicas. Reticulatas are not as cold hardy as japonicas and are grown mostly in Florida and California or else in greenhouses.
Hybrids are any camellia that results from the crossing of more than one species of camellia. These add much to the camellia world in color, fragrance, and cold hardiness.
So far, this article contains probably more than most readers want to know, so now, lets look at how to go about growing this “Queen of the winter flowers”. Our climate here in Albany is great for growing camellias. Soil must be on the acid side with pH of 7 or less, 5.5 to 6.5 is the ideal.
Camellias do not like wet feet, instead, they like a moist well drained soil. If your soil does not drain well, grow your plants in a raised bed or in containers. Camellias will grow in shade but they prefer a dappled effect. If there is too much shade, the plants may not bloom well.
Plants under pine trees are best, but you can use shade from house if no trees are available. Winter months of November through January are best time to plant camellias. This gives the dormant plants’ roots a chance to develop before spring flush. Do not plant your camellia too deep. A plant will settle after putting it in the hole which should be at least twice the width of the root ball.
Leave about 1 inch above ground level and mulch keeping the mulch about 4 inches away from the trunk. Pine straw about 4-5 inches deep is best. Prune to shape the plant and also to encourage growth. This should be done after blooming, but before new growth starts in the spring.
Fertilization should be done starting about three times per year — April Fools Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. Don’t use a high nitrogen fertilizer in the fall as it may cause new growth that can be hurt by early frosts.
If you do need to fertilize late, use cottonseed meal, blood meal, or bone meal which will not burn the foliage.
Propagation is done by several means. Grafting, air-layering, or by cuttings will give you a desirable plant. Grafting is mostly done in January through March. Air-layering starts at the end of March or in April while cuttings are usually taken in June through August. You can plant seeds also.
After harvesting seeds, do not let them dry but soak the seeds in warm water over night and the ones that sink are viable. The floaters are hollow and won’t grow. You never know what you will get when you plant a seed.
Pests and diseases are something camellias can encounter. As far as diseases, there are two: root rot and petal blight. Root rot is caused by keeping camellias too wet. Petal blight is an ugly fungus that infects the blossoms and turns them brown starting at the center of the flower. Tea scale and spider mites are two of the main pests.
Both of these can be controlled by spraying with an agricultural oil which will suffocate the little varmints. Make sure the underside of the leaves are fully covered. Several sprays may be needed in a heavily infested plant. Do not spray if temperatures are below 40 or above 80 degrees F. Leaf burn may occur.
Ron Wolfe is one of three directors for the United States in the International Camellia Society and he is also a director at large for the American Camellia Society. He is grateful for his camellia mentors who whetted his interest and nurtured his passion for this glorious winter blooming beauty. G. Stuart Watson, Spencer Walden, Dick Bullock and Porter Thomas were giants in camellia circles and will be respected and remembered throughout the camellia world for years to come. Wolfe is a master gardener.