Camellias bloom in your autumn garden
Although I’m an advocate for native plants, there are desirable non-native shrubs that do well in central Virginia. In my own back yard, I’ve planted three species of camellia, which are native to Asia: the Japanese camellia or Camellia japonica; sasanqua or C. sasanqua; and the tea camellia or C. sinensis.
Why do I love camellias? They are large, long-lived, evergreen shrubs with attractive leaves. In the landscape, camellias can serve as an accent plant, a privacy hedge or a tall foundation planting. They can be pruned into a “small tree” form.
But the primary reason I recommend camellias is their gorgeous red, pink white or variegated blooms in the months when the flowers of many plants are gone. Sasanqua camellias begin to bloom in fall and are often completed by Christmas, just in time for many of the Japanese camellias to begin blooming.
Rose of winter
Growing up to 12 feet high, the predominant species, C. japonica, is often called the Rose of Winter or Rose of the South.
Depending on the variety, Japanese camellias usually flower between January and March, but some cultivars flower earlier or later than that. The blossoms can be up to five inches in diameter and range in form from single to semi-double, double, formal double or full peony, depending on the cultivar. The Japanese camellias around the emperor’s palace in Tokyo are known to be more than 500 years old.
While the Japanese camellia is usually upright, sasanquas range from upright and bushy to low and spreading. They usually grow faster than the Japanese variety, but may be less hardy.
They have smaller leaves than Japanese camellias, but sport fragrant single or semi-double blossoms up to three inches in diameter. A camellia bush will flower over a period of four to six weeks. Two lovely cultivars of sasanqua are the white-blooming ‘Setsugekka’ and the popular ‘Yuletide,’ with its bright red flowers decorated by bright yellow stamens.
Tea camellia has been in cultivation for more than 3,000 years. Yes, the new leaves from these plants are harvested to produce green, black, white and oolong teas.
The word for camellia in Chinese is Chá hui, which means “tea flower.” Although its small, white fall-blooming flowers aren’t significant, I include it in my garden because it is the most abundant camellia in the world and it is another variety of the camellias that I so love.
Although I have not yet tried to brew tea from my own plant, I may pick, bruise and oxidize my own tea leaves this spring to prepare a nice cup of homegrown oolong! Directions on how to make your own tea are available from the America Camellia Society at americancamellias.com.
Now is a good time to plant most shrubs, including camellias. The ideal months are October to November and March to mid-April. You will often find camellias for sale in garden centers when they are in bloom.
Since camellias are shallow-rooted, don’t force them to compete with the roots from other trees. Find a spot where they can thrive: sheltered from full sun, intense morning sun and drying winds.
An ideal location is a protected corner near the northern or western exposure of a building or fence. Allow a minimum of five feet between plants and preferably more when planting. But if you want to form a hedge, a distance of three feet between plants is recommended.
Camellias prefer slightly acidic well-drained soil. When planting, remove stones and break up heavy clay soils. Don’t plant too deeply. Use two to three inches of organic mulch to conserve the soil moisture.
Disbudding and other care tips
Camellias are typically slow to become established. Fertilize with azalea/camellia fertilizer in the spring but do not overfertilize. Generally, camellias don’t need much pruning.
Once established, some Japanese camellias set more buds than can open and may direct their bud set on the terminal ends of the branches instead of distributing them evenly.
Disbudding concentrates the plant’s energy on the development of fewer flowers, and it determines the position of the blooms on the branch so that each may open fully.
Working around the shrub, manually twist off or use pruners to snip crowded flower buds, leaving two to four inches between buds growing along the length of the stem. At the very end of the stem, leave only one or two buds.
Disbudding may be practiced from September to November. If disbudding is done too early in the season, it may result in the growth of another crop of buds.
The shrub may drop buds on its own, which is normal. Excessive bud drop could be caused by underwatering in summer or uneven rainfall amounts.
Camellias are prone to fungal diseases such as dieback and canker, root rot, camellia flower blight, as well as leaf and flower gall. Insect pests include tea scale and cottony camellia scale.
My own long-lived C. japonica required treatment for tea scale this year. Clemson University Extension has a good publication if your camellias have fungal or scale issues: bit.ly/camelliatips.
Lela Martin is a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.