Camellia japonica! What a beautiful word and flower you are! Southern gardens are beautified with the spectacular blooms of Camellia japonica from November through March. There are more than 3,000 named varieties of Camellia japonica. Camellias are native to Japan, China, Indochina and many other islands of Asia. They were introduced in this country more than 200 years ago.
The blossoms come in all shades from creamy white to deep red. There are beautiful, variegated combinations of white blossoms decorated with pink stripes or with red fringe around the edge. I have found it very helpful to attend Camellia shows to familiarize myself with the many beautiful varieties that thrive so well in the Midlands. Every time I attend a show, I find three to four varieties that I don’t want to live without. My garden is small, so I have to be content viewing them as I drive around Columbia or visit my clients’ gardens.
Camellias are happy in our moderate temperatures and acidic soil. They are a perfect addition to the landscape with their dark green leaves, their rounded, pyramidal shape and the beautiful, prolific blossoms that they produce in the late fall to early spring. Camellias are relatively slow growing but can reach a mature height of 10 to 20 feet. These wonderful shrubs may be used as an evergreen, blooming hedge, a specimen or espaliered against a wall as a spectacular focal point. The white blooming varieties are especially beautiful when lit at night. There really is nothing more beautiful than a specimen Camellia in full bloom in the dead of winter. They are easy to obtain, easy to grow and wonderful to enjoy!
Many gardeners have become obsessed with Camellias. There are many competitions in the winter where growers display their prized blossoms. It’s very helpful to visit these shows to see the gorgeous blooms and decide which ones are your favorites. It is also a great way to talk to avid Camellia growers about how to make sure they thrive and how to obtain the giant showy blossoms that are on stage. I learn much more at these shows than I do reading any book about how to grow Camellias.
Camellia japonica is often confused with Camellia sasanqua. Camellia sasanqua, or Sasanqua, as it is usually referred to, is a beautiful shrub with smaller dark green leaves that blooms in the early fall. Sasanqua are wonderful plants to include in the garden landscape but this column will address Camellia japonica.
Purchasing Camellia Japonica
As with many blooming shrubs, it is always better to buy these plants when they are in bloom to make sure that you are getting the plant you want. Many plants are improperly tagged or have no tags at all, so if you desire a particular variety, buy it while it is in bloom. Always buy shrubs that are evenly shaped and have healthy looking dark green leaves. Don’t buy just based on size. Sometimes a smaller plant will acclimate to your garden more successfully than a larger specimen. Buy the plant that will give you the most bang for the buck.
Camellias do much better in the garden if first planted in the right spot with the right exposure. Try to find the spot that mimics their natural environment. Camellias in the wild grow in the forest. They are an understory shrub that thrives under tall trees that provide a shady canopy and dappled light.
We are so lucky here in the Midlands to have such an abundance of tall pine trees. Camellias thrive under their canopy. The trees drop their needles that eventually decay making the soil the perfect acidic medium that Camellias need to grow. Camellias do not thrive or bloom well in dense shade, so try to find a spot with a tall canopy and dappled light — an essential part of their blooming. Make sure they are in a spot with good drainage and that they aren’t planted too deep or in a boggy space.
When you are ready to plant, dig a hole larger than the root ball. Mix in some good organic matter such as mushroom compost or Ohio Earth Food. Plant the root ball slightly higher than the ground. Mound the soil up around the roots to form a dome –– this will ensure good drainage. They will also need extra watering during dry spells because they are competing with the trees for moisture and nutrients. Mulch is very beneficial for Camellias; pine straw is perfect because it helps maintain moisture, and as it decays it adds acid to the soil. Azaleas prefer the same conditions as Camellias, so if you have a spot in the garden where Azaleas are thriving, Camellias will thrive there as well.
Camellias thrive in acidic soil with a pH from five to six. They prefer rich, loamy, almost fibrous soil that allows for good drainage. It is a good idea to add organic matter as mulch every season along with a natural fertilizer, such as Holly-Tone® or a specific fertilizer made for Camellias and Azaleas. Schedule the fertilization for March, June, August and October. Apply the fertilizer about 6 inches from the base of the plant. Use a garden fork to gently work it in and water gently. If you notice that the leaves are yellowing, a light dose of Ironite® may help improve their appearance.
I am always impressed when gardeners will go to great expense and trouble to transplant mature Camellia bushes. It is not an easy thing to do, and the success rate is probably 50/50. If you do decide to relocate any mature Camellias on your property, begin the process early by root pruning in late summer. To do this, use a sharp shovel and dig a circle around the bush. Measure about 3 to 4 feet from the trunk of the bush and begin there. Go all the way around the bush.
Do this once or twice a month until ready to tackle the big job of moving the bush! This root pruning process encourages the roots to grow in a circle and helps prevent some of the shock that the plant will go through. However, there are no guarantees. It is also helpful to prune the bush back by at least one-third.
When the temperatures have cooled down and you are ready to relocate the Camellia, follow these steps. Lift the plant. Wrap it in burlap and transfer it to its new home in the garden. Make sure it is not planted any deeper than it was before. Water religiously but make sure it drains well. Mulch and cross your fingers!
Scale seems to be the biggest pest for Camellias in the Midlands. If caught early it can usually be controlled. It looks like small bits of cotton on the underside of the leaves. An application of oil spray, such as Ortho® Volck®, is a relatively safe and effective treatment. Follow the directions carefully and make sure not to apply the oil spray during high temperatures over 85 degrees or lower temperatures of 40 degrees. Make sure to get the oil on the underside of the leaves or the treatment will be relatively useless.
It is best to prune Camellias after they bloom. Of course, you may prune anytime but you may be cutting off some buds. Make sure that your pruning tool is sharp and clean. Camellias set their buds in June, so if your goal is as many blossoms as possible, do your pruning before June.
Enjoying the Blooms
Now the fun part! Camellia japonica blooms are beautiful and long lasting. There are several methods to produce fewer and larger blooms. We will discuss two methods.
Disbudding: In September or October, examine the bush. If you see a stem with a cluster of buds, remove all but one bud from the cluster. This will produce one large bloom as opposed to two to three smaller blooms.
Gibbing: Gibbing produces the biggest and most spectacular blooms that will appear earlier than normal. So if you are contemplating entering the Camellia competition at The State Fair or with The Camellia Society, this is the way to do it. Gibberillic acid is a plant growth regulator and hormone. It speeds up the blooming process and should be applied in early fall.
To “gibb,” twist off the pointed leaf bud which is found adjacent to the bloom bud. This will leave a tiny “cup.” Fill this cup with one drop of acid squeezed from an eye-dropper. This process should only be applied to 20 percent or less of the bush. Give it a try.
Camellia gardening can be akin to rose gardening, and it can definitely become an obsession. Luckily, these garden lovelies thrive in our climate and bloom at a time when not much else is happening in the garden. They are a wonderful and beautiful addition to the landscape and can provide months of gardening activity and satisfaction. Give “gibbing” a try. Go to a Camellia show to learn more about bloom production and to see the hundreds of varieties. Take your phone and take photos of the ones you like the best. Hay Hill Garden Market, Cooper’s Nursery, Blue Moon Landscaping and Woodley’s Garden Center usually have a healthy and varied inventory of plants to choose from. Visit the nurseries during Camellia blooming time and choose a few favorites to take home to add to your collection.
So Many Varieties
There are so many beautiful varieties and color combinations of Camellias that it would take volumes to list them all. I asked one of my Camellia hobbyist friends which Camellia he liked best and he replied, “I always love the one I am admiring at the time best!” Here is a very small list of varieties grouped by color. Take this list with you to a show or nursery and see if they will become one of your favorites in your own garden.
White Varieties: Mary Alice Cox, Snow Man, Elegans Champagne, White Empress, Alba Plena
Pink Varieties: Debutante, Pink Perfection, Dr. Tinsley, Fashionata, Elegans Supreme, Betty Sheffield Pink
Red Varieties: Woodville Red, Blood of China, Kramer’s Supreme, Empress
Variegated: Carter’s Sunburst, Tomorrow Variegated, Miss Charleston, Daikagura, Tiffany, Herme
Every year there are many more varieties introduced to entice the gardener to try different ones. Find a nice shady spot with good soil and drainage and add a few Camellias to your garden this spring. You will be rewarded with beautiful blossoms next November.
Blooms to Look For
Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua, late blooming roses, tea olive, pansies, violets and early bloom bulbs.
December Chores for the Gardener
• If the ground is not frozen, tulips may still be planted.
• Shrubs and trees may be added to the landscape. Make sure to mulch after planting.
• Force narcissus and amaryllis to enjoy indoors during the quieter gardening months of December and January.
• Fertilize and prune any indoor plants that need attention.
• Plant your Christmas tree if you bought a live one.
• Decorate your house with beautiful magnolia leaves for the holidays. Cut the branch and stand in a solution of 1/3 glycerin and 2/3 water for a week or so. The branches should last at least a month to add greenery to the indoors.
• Smilax can be found growing in the woods. This is an easy vine to use to decorate your house for the holidays. Drape it around paintings and mirrors for a festive and natural touch.
• There are numerous Camellia shows in December and January, so pay attention to your buds and blooms and plan to enter your most beautiful blossoms.
• To work off the extra calories, peruse your garden. Do the beds need to be redefined? If so, get a sharp shovel or spade and re-edge the garden beds. Add a thin layer of new mulch and the garden will be refreshed and neatened for the holiday festivities.
• Buy yourself a beautiful orchid as a reward for all of your hard work in the garden this past year.
• Treat yourself to a new gardening book and be inspired by new ideas.
• Plan a new outdoor sitting area in the garden to be enjoyed all spring and fall.
• Spruce up your outdoor furniture so it will be ready the first warm day of spring.