Camellia bushes are certainly one of the most spectacular plants we grow. They have large, beautiful flowers in a wide range of colors, from pure white, through all possible shades of pink and red, and even some yellows and purples. Blossoms draw the attention of everyone who sees them. The flowers appear from fall, through the winter, and into spring, depending on the type, which means that a collection of camellias can be in flower for almost half the year. Flowering at those times also means they brighten our gardens exactly when most other plants are dormant – just when we appreciate them the most. Although strongly associated with the South, where they were first grown in America, in fact they can be grown outdoors across a large part of the country. Since they make terrific container plants, they can be grown everywhere really, if you have somewhere suitable for them to spend the coldest parts of the year.
Their beauty and utility doesn’t end with their blooms, because they have handsome evergreen leaves that are rich green, glossy and always strikingly attractive. Depending on the type, the bush itself may be large and upright, smaller and dense, or more open and arching in form. As well, since they grow in shade, they are very useful for the shady parts of the garden where it can sometimes be hard to find suitable plants.
The Best Features of Camellia
- Beautiful large flowers from fall to spring
- Rich, glossy evergreen foliage
- Grow well in shady places
- Easy to grow in suitable soil
- Great container plants for colder areas
It is the combination of beautiful flowers on a striking bush that will grow in shade that makes the unique properties of the camellia. Once hooked on their exquisite forms and colors, many gardeners become ‘camellia addicts’, collecting more and more, and enjoying the variety they bring to the garden in the quietest times of year. They do have some specific requirements for soil and growing conditions, but if you do not have those conditions in your garden, there are several effective strategies that will still allow you to enjoy these marvelous plants and revel in their powerful presence.
Using Camellia Bushes on Your Property
The premier use for the camellia in your garden is for its flowers, which instantly grab our attention. But it doesn’t stop there, because their dense growth and rich evergreen foliage makes them excellent plants for creating the structure and form that makes every garden unique. Larger ones are almost tree-like, and make wonderful background plants in beds, or to fill those often-awkward corners where buildings change angles, or where your property line turns. Being evergreen they make wonderful hedges, and their natural density means they need little or no trimming to stay neat. Some varieties can be trained to grow on walls or fences, so you can enjoy them even if you have limited space. There are plenty of smaller types suitable for smaller properties, and most can be grown in pots, so you can enjoy them even with little or even no garden space. It also doesn’t matter if you have an informal or a formal garden – they fit perfectly into almost any style of garden you might have. Because they originated in the East, they even fit into Asian-themed gardens, which do not have to be just pine, maple and bamboo to be authentic.
Camellia bushes thrive in areas that are partially shaded, or even fully shaded. They grow well in the shade of large deciduous trees, enjoying the winter sunshine that filters through the bare branches, and then benefiting from the shade they give against the scorching summer sun. They also grow very well on the north side of a building, where the shade is lighter. There, they can be in permanent shade all year and all day, with the brightness reflected from the sky perfect for their needs. This ability to grow well in building shade makes them the ideal choice for the shady parts of the foundation planting around your home. Put other plants in the sunny south and west sides, but fill the north and east with shrubs like the camellia, and you will have flowers and beauty for months on end.
They are also important plants for pot growing. They have a fibrous root-system that means they can grow for many years in large pots, and there is something very special about a gorgeous camellia bush in full flower, standing in a beautiful pot on a terrace or patio. You can even grow them on a balcony, if you have no garden, so camellia flowers really are something everyone can enjoy.
What are Camellia Bushes Like?
A typical mature camellia bush is dense and upright in form. It may be anything from a few feet tall, to 30 feet, depending on the variety.The deep-green oval leaves cluster along the branches, making a bold presence in the garden. Flowers grow all over the plant, often from top to bottom. The flowers are usually about 4 inches across, but some can be larger and others a little smaller. The flowers vary greatly in form, from a bowl of just a few petals, with bright yellow stamens in the center, to elegant flowers with hundreds of petals, sometimes in a flamboyant ruffle, and other times in perfect forms that could almost have been drawn with a compass, so precise and formal are they. They also vary greatly in color. Some are the purest of whites, while many are pink – in all imaginable shades. Some are rich reds, from hot, bright reds, to the deepest, richest wine-reds. Some mix white with pink or red in spotted or streaked patterns, where no two flowers are marked in exactly the same way. There are a few that are purple, cream or yellow, and the only color missing is true-blue.
While most camellias are dense and upright, some, the sasanqua camellias, are more open in form, with the branches arching over under the weight of the blooms. Some of these can be spread out to grow on a fence or wall, meaning they can be grown behind lower plants without taking up any significant extra space at all.
Growing Camellia Bushes
Camellia bushes are not difficult to grow, but they do have some specific requirements. Let’s look at the most important ones.
Camellias grow best in zones 7 to 9. That means they can take winter temperatures that fall close to 0o Fahrenheit, but not any colder. They do best in places that are more humid than very dry, and they benefit from being grown in spots protected from winds – both hot and cold ones. If you do live in a colder area, that doesn’t mean you can’t grow these beautiful plants. Grow them in pots, which we will discuss a little further down.
Camellia bushes grow best in partial shade, although in cooler areas they enjoy some sun too, especially in the mornings. Usually the hot, summer, afternoon sunshine is too much for them, and can lead to burning or yellowing of the foliage. The best kind of shade is either that below deciduous trees, or in the shadow of buildings. The deep shade beneath evergreens can be too dense for the best growth, although pine trees throw lighter shade, and camellias will usually grow well beneath them.
It is here that many people think that camellia bushes are difficult. They grow best in soils that are slightly acidic, but these soils are common all through the eastern states, so that is often not a problem. If you see camellia bushes growing in your neighborhood, then you can grow them too. If not, then low-priced test-kits are available at garden centers and hardware stores. These are simple to use and give you the information right away. If your soil is acidic, neutral or even slightly alkaline, then you can grow plants right in the ground. Plants in non-acidic soils benefit greatly from the use of chelated iron, which is a special form the plants can absorb, and that keeps them healthy. If the new spring growth is a healthy green color, everything is fine. If it is yellow, then you need to treat the plants once or twice a year with chelated iron. Do this in spring and again in fall.
The soil should be well-drained, especially if you have a heavy, clay soil. Plant your bushes on a slope, or build a raised mound for them if your soil does not drain well. Always add plenty of organic material to the soil when preparing the planting area, and use it regularly as spring mulch. This will also help to slowly turn your soil acidic and more suitable, if you do not have the ideal soil
Camellias need a good supply of water to grow well. This is especially important during the spring and summer growing season. Dryness in summer can cause the flower buds – which develop at that time – to shrivel and fall, reducing flowering later. Especially when plants are young, water regularly and do not let the soil ever dry out completely. In early winter a little dryness is more acceptable, and may prevent the roots rotting, but in warmer areas, where plants grow more or less continuously, they need a steady supply of water.
Regular feeding with a fertilizer for acid-loving plants is important, especially when your plants are young. Feed in early spring just as new growth is beginning, and perhaps again in late summer, depending on how naturally-rich your soil is. Plants in containers should be fed regularly with a suitable fertilizer.
Growing Camellias in Pots
If you live in an area that is too cold, or if your soil is too alkaline, then growing camellias in pots is the best way to go. In warmer areas, the pots can be kept outdoors all year round, but in colder places they need to be brought into a warmer location for the coldest months. Plants will live well in pots for many years. They should be moved into larger pots as they grow and fill the pot with roots, and once you reach the largest pot-size you can handle, you can take the plants out of the pot when they are dormant, trim the roots and replant into new soil in the same pot. Always choose a pot with drainage holes. Never stand the pot in a saucer of water. Use soils that are specially designed for acid-loving plants, and use a fertilizer for acid-loving plants too.
A cool, well-lit place to keep them in the coldest months, such as a sun-porch, or glassed-in terrace, is ideal, as warm rooms of the house are not so suitable. Bring them inside when the temperatures start to fall below 40 degrees, and wait in spring until they reach that level again before putting the plants back outside. The great thing is, many will bloom during that time inside, where the blossoms will open to perfection protected from the weather, and bring color and great beauty to your indoor space.
Different Camellias for your Garden
There are several groups of camellia bushes, with different forms, both of the bush itself, and more importantly of the flowers, which is where most of the attention is placed.
The Japanese Camellia is the most widely grown type, and this is the plant that is called the Rose of the South, or sometimes Rose of Winter. Botanists call it Camellia japonica, and it originated in China and Japan. It is grown not only in America, but across the world wherever the climate is suitable. Most of the many varieties are upright, dense bushes growing between 5 and 10 feet tall, and often just as wide. The normal flowering season is from January to March, but some particular forms may flower a few weeks earlier or later. Because there are so many different varieties, they are organized based on the overall shape of the flowers. The groups currently used are:
- Single – The flowers have no more than 8 petals, and a prominent ‘brush’ of yellow stamens in the middle of the flower
- Semi-double – This type has flowers with two or more rows of petals, but still showing one central clump of stamens
- Irregular semi-double – In these flowers the stamens are broken into small clumps by the petals, which are arranged in a twisted and irregular fashion
- Formal double – These perfectly formed flowers have many petals (there may often be hundreds). They are neatly arranged in overlapping circles, and there are no stamens visible at all
- Informal double (Peony-form) – All the petals are arranged in a ball of irregular petals, twisted into a dome, flat on the bottom, and curving and turning
- Elegans form (Anemone-form) – These are like the Informal Double, but the mass of twisted petals is surrounded by a circle of flat outer petals
All the colors mentioned earlier – white, pink, red, bi-color, yellow and purple – are found among the hundreds of different Japanese Camellias, and most of the different colors can be found in several different flower forms. Everyone gets the chance to find something that appeals particularly to them.
Because there are so many varieties of Japanese Camellia, here at the Tree Center we strive to offer you only the most reliable, well-tested and well-loved ones. Our varieties change from time to time, but they are always chosen from among the very best available, giving you unique colors and forms.
The Sasanqua Camellia, called Camellia sasanqua scientifically, looks at first glance like the Japanese camellia. The main difference in appearance is that the bushes are usually more open in form, often faster growing, and bring a ‘softer’ look to the garden, They are very suitable for more informal settings, like woodlands and informal beds. The flowers are usually simpler in form and a little smaller than those of the Japanese Camellia, being mostly single or semi-double. They are prolific bloomers, often covered in blooms for weeks on end. The big feature, and a large part of their popularity, is that they begin to bloom in fall, and are often finished by Christmas. As this is exactly when the Japanese Camellias begin, they extend the camellia season by several months.
Some plants often sold under this label are in fact hybrids, called Camellia x hyemalis. These are a cross between a sasanqua camellia and a Japanese camellia, and besides blooming in fall, some varieties bloom into the winter too, extending the Sasanqua Camellia season.
Other Kinds of Camellia
Yes, that cup of tea you just had is the leaves of a camellia, Camellia sinensis. This bush has small white flowers, but it is grown commercially, particularly in China and India. The leaves of the Sasanqua Camellia can also be dried and used to make tea.
There are a few varieties of camellia bushes that have scented blooms. These are mostly hybrids that contain genes from a Chinese species called Camellia lutchuensis. Among other breeders, J. Finley of Whangerei, New Zealand, crossed this plant with varieties of Japanese Camellia, and has produced several sweetly-scented forms.
Where do Camellias Come From?
Wild camellia bushes grow in the countryside of China, Japan and South Korea. In those countries, they were cultivated thousands of year ago, first for tea, and then for the beauty of their flowers. They were first brought to Europe in 1730, but it was mostly in the 19th century that many new varieties were produced, both in Belgium, Germany and France, and in America. In Europe, they became associated with the Belle Époque, decorating beautiful women at grand balls. In America, they are associated with the culture of the South. Collectors began to grow them for flower competitions, and many more new varieties were developed. Today they are loved everywhere they can be grown, and are vital garden plants for blooms from fall to spring.