Camellias are always in vogue

Camellia japonica 'Hakurakuten' Picture courtesy japonica 'Hakurakuten' Picture courtesy common myth about camellias is they are fussy to grow, but this is not true as they are also known as exceptionally carefree plants if a few basic rules are followed, and once established they are relatively maintenance free. Read more below about growing and caring for them so they will reward you with blooms for generations to come.

All photographs show here are courtesy of Click here to see their beautiful selection of Camellias.

There are a handful of plants which just never go out of fashion, and included in these are Camellias, which, together with Roses, can always be found at garden centres. From their beginnings as wild plants growing in the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean countryside, camellias have come a long way, and today they can be found growing in gardens almost all over the world.

In the wild the plants love to grow in communities in the dappled shade provided by a canopy of trees, and in China they are commonly found growing in bushy clumps between pines trees. In more open situations they grow upwards to become small trees, forming camellia woodland’s. Camellias that typically form woodlands include: Camellia japonica, ‘tsubaki’, found in many parts of the Japanese archipelago, and Camellia sasanqua, ‘sasanka’ in southern Japan. In China, Camellia reticulata may occasionally be found growing in full sun but is mostly found in semi-shade.

Camellia x williamsii 'Pink Lace' Picture courtesy x williamsii 'Pink Lace' Picture courtesy very first camellias were cultivated as ‘tea’ plants around 5 000 years ago, and local camellias, like Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is widely distributed in China, were planted and tended in order to harvest only the young, new shoots to make the now famous beverage.

At least 1 000 years ago, selections from other wild species of Camellia with more beautiful flowers than those used to make tea, like the particularly lovely Camellia japonica and Camellia reticulata in Yunnan, China, were cultivated as ornamentals in the gardens of temples and homes of the nobility. The process of selecting and crossing camellias had begun, but it was only much later that these splendid plants gradually filtered out of China and Japan to ‘the west’.

Records date the first camellia grown in the United Kingdom from the late 1730’s. It is not known which specific variety it was, but it was a single red camellia that was grown at Thorndon Hall in Essex, most probably under glass, and from seed. However, it was only 60 years later, in the 1790’s that camellias became more numerous in Britain, and as the trade in tea with China grew, more and more East India ships returned to Britain with camellia plants on board. Such a journey would have taken around one year – a very long time for a plant to survive at sea! These imports were not wild varieties but beautiful cultivated varieties from Chinese nurseries.

In Japanese camellias are called “Tsubaki” and in China “Cháhuā”, but the name “Camellia” was given to the genus in the 18th century, in honour of Georg Joseph Camel (or Kamel in Czech or Camellus in Latin), a Czech missionary and botanist, who wrote an important treatise on plants of the Philippines in the early 1700’s.

In 1792, two varieties, Camellia Japonica Alba Plena, a double flowering white variety, and Camellia Japonica Variegata, were brought to Britain by Captain John Corner in his ship ‘East Indiaman Carnatic’. They were intended for the ship’s owner Gilbert Slater, and it is widely believed that these two camellias were later planted at Chiswick House in the 1820’s. Naturally, everyone who saw these gorgeous flowers was totally smitten, and more varieties soon followed, and by the mid 1800’s the arrival of the pink flowering Camellia reticulata arrived with Richard Rawes.

Camellias had become so fashionable in Britain by 1828, that at Chiswick House it was decided to replace the exotic fruit originally housed in the Conservatory with the very ‘in vogue’ camellias. The collection was housed under glass, as at the time it was widely believed that camellias were far too delicate to be grown outside without protection from the harsh British winters. The plants thrived, and each spring when the camellias were in bloom London society of the day would come in their droves to enjoy a stroll through the Camellia Conservatory and marvel at the exotic blooms. Today it still houses the oldest camellia collection under glass in Western Europe, and here you will discover many direct camellia descendants of the original plants dating from 1828, including Camelia japonica and ‘Variegata’, and ‘Alba Plena’. By the close of the 18thcentury camellias were all the rage as conservatory plants, featuring in the finest gardens of Europe and England.

Click here to read more about the Chiswick House Camellia Show 

Click here to see Google images of the Camellias at Chiswick House

Camellias continued to live under glass until later in the 1800’s when they were found to be hardy enough to survive the British winter. It was at this point that English nurseries began to breed camellias and they became immensely popular with gardeners everywhere, and no longer only the preserve of the wealthy. The mild climate of Cornwall made it the perfect spot to grow camellias outside and evidence of this can be found at the gardens of Tregothnan, home to the Boscawen family since 1334, and thought to be the earliest plantings of camellias in the open, and the pioneer of the UK’s first tea plantations. Camellias were also later found at the acclaimed Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Click here to read more about the gardens of Tregothnan

Click here to read more about Lost Gardens of Heligan.

When it was realised that camellias were actually successful outdoors interest spread throughout Europe and by the middle of the 19th century camellia cultivation was widespread. Hybridists and nurseries in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, Spain and the UK were breeding, propagating and selling more and more camellia plants in more and more varieties.

Camellia sasanqua 'Henrietta' Picture courtesy sasanqua 'Henrietta' Picture courtesy 19th century also saw the spread of camellias to North America, New Zealand and Australia, and hybridists produced ever more exotic varieties which triggered great competition amongst gardeners, and just like roses, camellia shows became regular events, camellia societies sprung up, especially in the USA, and gardeners started to grown specifically to produce blooms for these shows.

Interestingly, a fifty year old specimen at Descanso Gardens located in the San Rafael Hills in Los Angeles County, California, whose famed camellia collection is believed to be the largest in the world, an incredibly long lateral limb of a Camellia reticulate measured more than 5m long!

Click here to see Google images of Descanso Gardens

In South Africa we have the International Camellia Garden of Excellence at Vergelegen Wine Estate in Somerset West – one of only two in the southern hemisphere, and the only one in Africa. The history of Vergelegen’s camellias goes back decades, and the earliest camellias were planted by Cynthia Barlow after her family bought Vergelegen in 1941. The plantings were classic, pre-1940’s Camellia japonica cultivars, and today they are mature shrubs reaching magnificent heights of up to 5m.

Over the years the collection at Vergelegen was continually expanded and camellias were sourced locally and as far afield as France, Japan and America, and today the estate boasts a remarkable collection of about 550 camellia cultivars, making up a collection of about 1 000 specimens. The magnificent blooms are at their best in winter, and continue flowering through spring.

Click here to read more about the camellias at Vergelegen

Today camellias are grown outdoors in gardens around the world, and like roses, camellias continue to intrigue a whole new generation of gardeners with their beautiful form, glossy evergreen leaves, and voluptuous, waxy blooms. There are about 300 known species, and plant breeders have created thousands of hybrids and cultivars that make ideal garden plants.

Most garden hybrids derive from three particularly attractive species, namely the autumn flowering Camellia sasanqua, the winter-flowering Camellia japonica, and the large-flowered Camellia reticulata that finishes blooming in spring.  Many garden hybrids are created by crossing two different Camellia species, for example, the large blooms of Camellia x williamsii are a result of crossing Camellia japonica with Camellia saluensis.

Camellia japonica 'Debutante' Picture courtesy japonica 'Debutante' Picture courtesy japonica

Camellia japonica is found growing wild in mainland China (Shandong, east Zhejiang), Taiwan, southern Korea, and southwestern Japan. It is found near the coast and in forests at altitudes of around 300 to 1 100m. Since the 11th century they have appeared in several gorgeous pieces of art from China including paintings and porcelain, and in the past, these plants were used as offerings to the gods, and they are still seen today as lucky symbols for the Chinese New Year. Camellia japonica is known to be extremely long-lived, and some japonicas growing in the surrounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Japan are known to be more than 500 years old.

Click here to see Google images of the magnificent gardens of the Tokyo Imperial Palace.  

Camellia japonica is also known as the Common Camellia, Japanese Camellia, or simply Japonica in the USA, and out of all the camellia species, it is the most widely grown and has the most cultivars to choose from. It blooms in late winter through spring, depending on the variety, and there are thousands available in a wide selection of flower sizes, from miniatures only 4cm across to huge blossoms reaching 12cm across. The petal forms range from single to semi-double and very formal doubles, and come in delightful single or bicoloured shades of soft pink to dark red, and pure white and cream. This camellia has a pyramidal to upright oval shape that is very regular and formal in appearance, and grows slowly to 3m tall and 1m wide but can mature into a large shrub about 5m tall with a 3m spread, depending on growing conditions and climate. It makes a magnificent, formal focal point in the garden.

Camellia japonica will grow in coastal, subtropical and frosty regions, so ask your local nursery for help in selecting cultivars that will thrive in your area. If you live in the hotter regions of South Africa, avoid late-season bloomers (those that flower in September) because the weather will be too warm for them and may scorch the petals. These late bloomers are better suited to cooler and frosty areas.

Although Camellia japonica can cope in full sun, it most often needs protection from intense, direct midday and afternoon sun, and in our mostly hot and dry climate it tends to produce the best blooms in a light shade environment. Sudden temperature changes are not your Camellia japonicas friend, and although it can cope with temperatures that drop to as low as -12 degrees C, it can only do so for short periods. For this reason it is best to select your site carefully and to make sure it has adequate shelter against cold winter winds.  It also needs shelter from strong, salt-laden, coastal winds.

Just a few popular options from include:

Camellia japonica 'Brushfield’s Yellow’ is a large, upright growing shrub with beautiful blooms with white outer petals and a creamy yellow ruffled centre.

Camellia japonica ‘Debutante’ is a medium-sized, bushy shrub, with light pink, peony shaped blooms.

Camellia japonica ‘Hakurakuten’ has upright growth and produces large, pure white, semi-double blooms.

Camellia sasanqua 'Marie Young' Picture courtesy sasanqua 'Marie Young' Picture courtesy sasanqua

Camellia sasanqua is a species of Camellia native to China and Japan and is usually found growing up to an altitude of 900m. It’s an evergreen shrub that, with maturity can reach up to 5m tall, with broad, glossy leaves, with finely serrated margins. Sasanquas start blooming earlier than Japonicas, starting anytime from late summer and continuing into autumn and early winter, depending on the cultivar, and where you live. The blooms of sasanquas are mostly single or semi-double and although they may not be quite as showy as the double Camellia japonica hybrids, they have their own special charm, and are born in such profusion at a time when the summer garden has faded, that sasanquas are truly one of the glories of the late summer and autumn garden, and therefore invaluable in the landscape.

Their elegant yet open growth habit allows them to blend in effortlessly with other shrubs in the mixed border, without dominating the landscape in the way the denser and more formal and upright growing Camellia japonica does. The lightly scented blooms feature fluted, ruffled petals, adorned with a central burst of bright golden-yellow stamens, and their colours range from white to shell-pink, and rosy red to cherry red, with some even sporting blooms with bold splotches of colour on the petals. Each flower lasts for only a few days, making them ill-suited for cutting.

Camellia sasanqua hybrids grow quicker than Camellia japonica hybrids and vary in height and spread. The taller varieties grow about 3m tall and 1.5m wide, maturing into large plants about 5m tall and 2.5m wide. Camellia sasanqua is still very hardy, but is less resistant to low temperatures than Camellia japonica, and although it enjoys filtered shade it can take a lot more sun than camellia japonica, even growing in full sun in cooler climates.

Just a few popular options from include:

Camellia sasanqua ‘Aimee’ is a small, compact shrub which produces a profusion of small, single pink flowers.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Marianne’ has bushy, upright growth and produces a profusion of smaller double, white, slightly ruffled blooms with a light musky fragrance.

Camellia sasanqua 'Marie Young' is a bush, medium-sized, upright shrub with soft, light pink single blossoms.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Henrietta’ is a medium-sized, upright shrub hich produces an abundance of small, loose, peony-shaped blooms of soft rose pink, with a light musk scent.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Jennifer Susan’ is a large, bushy and upright shrub with a profusion of small, double peony blooms of soft pink, with a light musk scent.

Camellia reticulata 'Dream Girl' Picture courtesy reticulata 'Dream Girl' Picture courtesy reticulata

Camellia reticulata is a slow growing, grey-barked shrub or tree that can grow as much as 10 to 15m in height, making it the tallest of the camellia species. The elliptical leaves are up to 11cm long, heavily serrated and dull green. The large flowers are 7 to 10cm in diameter, or larger in some cultivars, with 5 to 7 petals, or more in some cultivars, and are mostly available with red, pink and variegated blossoms, and rarely almost white. Individual petals may be indented or somewhat crinkled, giving a variety of forms to the flowers. This Camellia is susceptible to very cold weather and has a late blooming season in the southern hemisphere, blooming from August through October.

In its natural habitat in China, near the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, where it is known as ‘nanshancha’, or the ‘southern mountain camellia’, it has the potential to live for 600 years, or more. The mountains of its native range are known for their mild climate, with warm and dry winters. Reticulatas are forest plants found at an elevation of approximately 1 800 to 2 500m, and are commonly found growing in open woodlands described as ‘pine scrub’, where several species of pine, together with evergreen and deciduous oaks, form an important part of the over-story, with the camellias growing underneath. On disrupted sites, Camellia reticulata and its close relatives are quite happy to be the over-story. Their dull, waxy leaves, which are better at reflecting high levels of ultra-violet light, are one of the reasons that this plant is well adapted to growing at higher elevations.

While Camellia reticulata created a horticultural stir in the Western world on at least two occasions in the last 300 years, its history in its native China goes back much further and the peak of Chinese enthusiasm for the species seems to have been during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644).

In the garden reticulatas seem to prefer more light than other camellias, and in southern California, which has a mild Mediterranean climate with slightly rainy winters and dry summers, they do well in nearly full sun. However, a break from the hot afternoon sun is usually appreciated.  One of the criticisms of this group of camellias is they can become a bit ‘lanky’ but if grown in more sun the plants are more densely branched, with denser foliage. grows the beautiful Camellia reticulata ‘Dream Girl’ - a large, open shrub or small tree with very large single to semi-double, salmon pink blooms, with a light, sweet fragrance.

Camellia x williamsii 'Black Lace' Picture courtesy x williamsii 'Black Lace' Picture courtesy x williamsii (Hybrid Camellia)

The large blooms of Camellia x williamsii are the first camellia hybrids and generally bloom after Camellia japonica. They are a result of crossing Camellia japonica and Camellia saluensis, and like Camellia japonica the flowers are available in shades of pink, red, and white, and come many shapes and sizes, from semi-doubles to formal doubles.

They are cold hardy like Camellia japonica and most of them are very vigorous growers and free-blooming. Williamsii hybrids are highly recommended for the garden as they bloom for an exceptionally long time, with some varieties flowering for about 4 to 5 months, starting in mid-winter right through to mid spring. Their upright growth habit and abundance of blooms makes them even more attractive than the older Camellia japonica varieties. They do best in semi-shade and are treated in the same manner as japonicas.

Camellia x williamsii cultivars include the very free flowering, large peony-formed, deep rose blooms of ‘Anticipation’, and the semi-double, orchid pink blooms of  ‘Donation’ which performs very well in cold climates. ‘Baby Bear’ is a delightful dwarf camellia with masses of tiny, single pink flowers.  

A few popular options from include:

Camellia x williamsii 'Pink Lace' is a compact medium sized, rounded shrub with formal blooms of mid to deep pink.

Camellia x williamsii ‘Black Lace’ is a compact, medium sized shrub with upright growth. It produces formal double flowers with a deep blackish red colour and a paler centre.

Camellia x williamsii ‘Lavender Prince’ has an open upright growth habit, and large semi- double, orchid pink blooms.

Camellia sasanqua 'Jennifer Susan' Picture courtesy sasanqua 'Jennifer Susan' Picture courtesy the Garden:

Camellias are ideal for gardens small and large, and should always be planted where their great  beauty can be admired, and because they respond well to pruning, the taller varieties are often trimmed up as small trees or trained as standard ‘lollipop’ trees. You can use them for topiary, espalier them against a wall, or drape them over an arbour. Shrubby cultivars are often used as formal hedging plants, or informal screens. Pruning will reduce the numbers of flowers produced, but hedges of camellia still produce a lovely display of blooms in season.

There are camellia varieties available for almost any garden situation, and you will be happy to know they are bee friendly plants, providing sustenance when food is scarce. Camellias are perfect to use as tall focal points in lawns and beds, and are gorgeous in large pots, or in above ground planters in decks. They are indispensable in all shady to sunny woodland gardens and perfect for Japanese, and water gardens. Camellias always look stunning in a mixed border where they provide autumn, winter and spring colour when little else is flowering in the garden. They also lend themselves too many architectural and garden styles, modern as well as contemporary; so whether yours is Asian, French provincial, cottage, country, formal or contemporary, there’s a camellia variety for you. Local nurseries will have a selection that is suitable for your growing region, so seek their advice before making your final selection.

As shrubs, both Camellias and Azaleas are colourful additions to any shade garden, and as they both originate from the same areas, China and Japan, they make them excellent companion plants in the garden and enjoy the same growing conditions. Other good companions for camellias include:  Japanese Maples, Magnolias, Gardenia, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow, Hydrangeas, Hostas and Ferns.

Camellia sasanqua' Marianne' Picture courtesy sasanqua' Marianne' Picture courtesy

Camellias can be grown almost throughout South Africa with the correct care. They’re not well suited to very hot, dry inland areas, but if you want to try, they will need special care, including shade and the close company of other shrubs and trees, enriched soil, and quite a lot of water.

Camellias do not tolerate salt spray, and in coastal regions they are planted more inland, in well-prepared soil, and where they are sheltered from strong winds. In very hot and humid coastal areas they prefer to grow away from the steamy coastline, at higher altitudes where it is cooler. In the winter rainfall regions they will require very well drained soil and regular watering in summer.

Camellia plants are generally extremely cold hardy, and we know that Camellia japonica is sufficiently hardy to survive the British winters, doing well in the milder climate of Cornwall, and generally, most varieties of Camellia japonica, can take surprisingly low temperatures in winter, and will tolerate short spells of 3 to 4 days with below freezing conditions. However, the flowers can be ruined by severe frost, and if frozen the buds may fall off. During severe winters the foliage may become discoloured, but will usually recover in spring. Consult with your garden centre for the correct varieties for your area, and also consider planting the beautiful Camellia sasanqua as it flowers is a lot earlier than its cousins, starting anytime from late summer and autumn, or winter, depending on the cultivar.

In cold regions your camellia plants will look a lot better if they are planted where they do not receive very early morning sun which can burn frozen buds. Also, shelter them from cold winds, and protect young plants with a covering of horticultural fleece. In these regions you will need to coax mature plants into a kind of dormancy before winter sets in, as tender new growth is more affected by cold conditions, and if stimulated in late summer or autumn to produce new growth through feeding, the plant could be adversely affected by freezing conditions, so stop feeding in late summer and also slowly reduce the amount you water.

The roots of mature plants in a garden border are relatively protected from freezing, but in very cold regions, cover them with fresh mulch. This includes potted plants, as the roots of camellias in containers are more vulnerable to winter damage because they lack the insulation of surrounding soil. Potted plants are also especially vulnerable if the soil is too wet. Protect the roots of potted specimens by wrapping the pot with several layers of plastic ‘bubble wrap’ to reach the ground and just above the rims, and tie securely. This, together with a covering of frost protection cloth will go a long way in keeping them happy over winter. Keep an eye out for the soil drying out too much, and during a frost-free period, water early in the day, if necessary.

If you follow a few basic growing rules, camellias can look quite spectacular in almost any garden – they are a lot tougher than you may think!

When growing exotic plants in our gardens, it’s always good to know their growing conditions in the wild, and to try to mimic these as much as we can, and camellias are no different. In the wild they grow in communities in the dappled shade provided by a canopy of trees, and are commonly found growing in bushy clumps between pines trees. Therefore most camellias prefer a shadier location, but there are varieties like the sasanqua types that will do well in more sun, so if in doubt, ask the experts at your local garden centre for advice.

In the wild, the fallen pine needles, which are known to be acidic, provide nutrients to the plants, so although camellias will adapt to most well drained garden soils, they really thrive if grown in slightly acidic soils with a texture that provides good drainage, with air round the surface roots.  Air around the surface roots is very important because as camellias grow they form deep roots for anchorage and a spreading fibrous root system to absorb water and nutrients, plus surface roots, which become more obvious as the plants reach maturity. These surface air roots are most important, so only mulch the surface of the soil with bark chips, and never soil. In the garden camellias thrive in acid soil with a pH of 5.8 to 6.5. PH controls the general overall health of the plant, and with an incorrect pH, nutrients may not be drawn up into the plant as needed.  If you are unsure about the pH of your garden soil, investing in a pH meter or tester kit is a good idea.

To ensure good healthy growth in the average garden, dig large individual planting holes, or if you wish to plant woodlands of camellias, rather dig the entire bed over thoroughly, incorporating plenty of organic material, like leaf litter, pine needles, acid compost and peat. Potted specimens require the same type of soil and its best to avoid cement pots as these will leach and make the soil more alkaline. In poor and sandy soils abundant enrichment of the soil will work wonders on the growth of the plant.

It is interesting to note here that wild camellias in China often grow in dense, ‘heavy’ soils with a high percentage of small clay particles. However, because they are found mostly on well drained mountain slopes and in a climate with low winter rainfall, the roots are less vulnerable to rotting.
For this reason camellias can be grown in clay soils as long as they drain well and the planting beds are well prepared as detailed above. Incorporating other materials like washed river sand will also help tremendously with drainage. If you have dense, clay soils prone to saturation, you'll need to grow your camellias in containers.

To test how well  the soil in garden beds or pots drains, water well before planting and watch to see how quickly the water drains away. Once you have established that the drainage is good, allow the wet soil to dry out a bit before planting.

As we mentioned earlier, camellias need oxygen around their surface roots to breath, and packing too much soil on top of the root mass when planting can deplete the oxygen supply to the roots, so it is imperative that camellias are planted at the proper depth.  Insert a stake into the planting hole, if required, and before removing the nursery bag, test the depth of the hole, then gently remove the nursery bag and place the plant into the planting hole, ensuring that once planted the stem will be no higher or deeper than it was when growing in its nursery bag. Fill in with soil and firm down well before watering thoroughly.

Mulching the surface of the soil with something like leaf mould, pine needles or pine bark will keep their root zones cool through the heat of summer, and will help to retain moisture, but remember that piling soil thickly over the topsoil is a ‘no-no’. Don’t dig around their roots as they have a shallow root system, and if you wish to grow other plants nearby, or a groundcover, plant them at the same time, to avoid root damage later.

Camellias, like many woody plants, stop growing in the autumn and go into a period of relative inactivity, or dormancy. The leaves stop manufacturing the sugars needed for normal activity and the sap stops moving through the plants, so feeding during the dormant season is a waste of money.
However, the burden of carrying a crop of flowers is quite a heavy one and by the end of the flowering season many camellias will be showing signs of exhaustion, and as new spring growth emerges the plants will need even more energy, so seasonal summer feeding should begin.

Camellias like a balanced diet and constantly available nutrients, and spotty feeding here and there throughout the year won’t usually do the trick if you really want a magnificent flowering plant. If your soil pH is correct you can feed with any good feeder for flowering plants, but consider purchasing a specialist camellia fertiliser, or one for acid loving plants, and feed throughout the season as recommended. For busy gardeners a slow-release fertiliser works well. Potted specimens do well with a liquid, or a slow release fertiliser. Be careful not to overfeed when the buds are swelling, and especially with fertilisers that are high in nitrogen, as this can encourage leaf growth at the expense of the flowers.

When feeding any plants with a granular fertiliser always be careful not to not apply it close to the trunk or stems as this can cause burn, and always try to use organic fertilisers as they are safe for your plants and the environment.

In their natural environments camellias receive very little water in winter when they are dormant, as most of the rain falls during the monsoon season, which starts just when temperatures rise and they come into growth in the spring. It’s a good idea to install an irrigation system to water camellias, and many enthusiasts in hot dry climates like South Africa, California and parts of Australia use irrigation systems with timers set to provide water in the evening or overnight when there is low evaporation.

Water is a vital element in camellia success or failure and overwatering could result in root rot, especially if the soil doesn’t drain well.  This is most important to bear in mind in the winter rainfall regions. On the other hand, under watering will result in poor growth and bud drop. Most flower buds form on the current year’s growth from mid-summer, and from then onwards they need a regular supply of water for the development of the flowers within the buds and for the flower stalks that attach the flowers to the stems. A break in water supply during these months may result in fallen flower buds and a lack of blooms later. Remember, camellias like water, but hate being constantly wet and soggy. It is also good to bear in mind that many camellias produce so many buds that it will often drop some, so don’t panic if you see a few or quite a lot of fallen buds, it may not be the result of incorrect care. If the plant looks happy and healthy, just let it be.

Natural rainwater is mildly acidic, which suits camellias just fine, however, if your household water supply is alkaline, say pH 8 or higher and there are times that you have to water, tap water is better than no water for short term situations, and in the summer rainfall regions this is not a problem, especially for camellias planted out in the garden.  It’s a different matter though where long, dry summers are the rule, and in these regions it would be great if rainwater can be stored for watering camellias through summer.

Camellias have naturally beautiful shapes and should need little if any pruning, unless you are growing a hedge. Cutting out the dead and weak stems can be done anytime, but if you need to trim hedges, or trim shrubs or trees whose branches extend above the outline of the plant, it is best to do this in very early spring, or right after flowering, and before new buds develop. Hedges may need additional summer clipping, and fairly rigorous pruning of sparse plants can help to encourage new growth. If the foliage of trees and large shrubs becomes too dense, limited sunlight will reach the central branches, reducing the number of flowers formed. A light prune of the inner branches will solve this problem.

Gardeners often ask if camellias can be transplanted, and the answer is yes, especially if they are still relatively small. However, large specimens, because of their complex root system, are not easily transplanted, and the procedure is done over time. Firstly, the plant should be prepared in advance by compaction of the roots in early spring. This is done by digging a deep circular trench around the plant to sever any roots growing beyond the canopy. Fill the trench with peat and prune the plant moderately to help it sustain the trauma. Only in the spring of the following year can you move the plant, possibly by wrapping the roots with a net. To keep the reduced root system consistent with the canopy you might need to gently prune once again, after transplanting. Make sure that the camellia never dries out during its preparation period, and for about 2 years after transplanting. As you can see, transplanting large camellias is not for beginners and an expert gardener is needed.

Propagation from semi-hardwood stem tip or leaf-bud cuttings taken in early summer is best. Alternate propagation methods include; seed, layering, grafting/budding.

Camellia sasanqua 'Aimee' Picture courtesy sasanqua 'Aimee' Picture courtesy, Pests & Diseases:

Often the opening buds turn brown, starting at the outer edges of the petals, and the flowers drop. This common problem can be caused by a spell of very cold or rainy weather, or at the other extreme, a spell of hot, dry weather. Hot afternoon sun or very early morning sun will also burn the buds.  Another cause could be Petal Blight, for which there is no chemical control as yet, but good sanitation and housekeeping, like immediately removing infected or dropped blooms, will help.

Feed your plants regularly with an organic fertiliser during the summer but do not feed when the buds start to swell or the lush green growth will overwhelm the buds.

Too much shade reduces bud formation, whilst excessive heat and sunshine scorches fine surface roots and flower buds.

Brown marks and spotting on the leaves can be due to weather damage, e.g. frost, wind or very hot sun, especially in poorly ventilated greenhouses.

If the tips and edges of the leaves are turning brown, this is a classic symptom of over feeding. Water well to flush the excess nutrients, and if all the leaves drop, do not throw the plant out straightaway, as it may recover and produce new shoots once the chemical balance between root and soil has been restored.

If you notice the leaves on your shrub are turning yellow, it could be a sign that the soil is a little too acidic, or it may be that the roots are standing in water. Alternatively, your camellia may just need feeding. Full sun will also often bleach the leaves.

If your camellia is looking sad and dropping some leaves, do not feed it, that’s like giving a sick person a 3 course meal! First find out what’s wrong with the plant and treat accordingly, before feeding again.

If grown correctly, your camellias should suffer from hardly any serious pests or diseases, however you may encounter some problems, and prevention is better than cure, so inspect your plants regularly and spray as required.

Aphids are common garden pests and these small green, ant-like insects are usually very active in spring when new growth appears, as well as in the summer months.  The aphids feed on the plant sap and often the most common symptom of aphid infestation are ants running up and down the stems, and a black sooty mould which can be found covering the tops of leaves. Ants and aphids go hand in hand, and the ants ‘farm’ aphids for the honeydew they secrete, and in return, the ants protect the aphids against their natural predators like praying mantis and ladybirds. Organic sprays containing only canola oil, with or without garlic, or only fatty acids only, kills soft bodied insects and will safeguard beneficial predators. Try Neudosan, Vegol, or Margaret Roberts Organic Insecticide. Once treated the plant will be free of aphids and ants but will still retain these sooty black leaves, which can be pruned out, or it can be tediously wiped off each leaf - a task that will ensure that you remember to implement a preventative spraying programme against aphids next season.

Mites are actually spider-mites that live and reproduce on the underside of the leaves and are visible by their faint dust like appearance and webbing.  They can be troublesome in hot, dry weather, causing the foliage to turn bronze and speckled, especially along the main vein.

Watch out for scale insects which attach themselves to the stems and the underside of the leaves, and cause the foliage to become yellow before dropping. If left untreated- it can spread to all parts of the plant and nearby plants as well.

Both spider mites and scale can be controlled with regular treatments with oil sprays or insecticides.

Camellia petal blight is a disease of the blooms that is characterized by brown splotches that can leave blooms with an undesirable appearance.  There is no cure for petal blight, but it won't kill the plant. Picking up the fallen blooms regularly will help a bit but will only minimize the problem as spores can travel by the billions up to 5 miles away!   Planting early blooming varieties can give you some relief from petal blight.

Click here to see Google images of Petal Blight

Dieback and canker are fungal diseases that affect some camellias more than others, and are more prevalent in hot, humid weather, and are spread by splashing water, wind, or unclean pruning shears.  The spores enter through wounds on the plant and can cause limbs to die, and if the plant is infected in the lower parts, the entire plant can die. These can be prevented by disinfecting pruning shears before and during pruning, and if you think you have problems with dieback, to prevent it from spreading to other plants you can spray with a fungicide, and applying a systemic fungicide to the soil should also help.

Click here to see Google images of Dieback and Canker.


Camellia is not toxic to humans cats, dogs and horses, so you can grow them safely around curious pets and children. However, it is always advisable to supervise young children in the garden and to discourage pets from chewing on plants. Cats that chew on plant material often have uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and/or diarrhoea. Choking is another common problem when animals consume leaves, flowers and plant stems. It is also possible for animals to have allergic reactions to certain plants, which can cause serious symptoms, so if a pet has any adverse symptoms after chewing on camellia, it may be best to consult with your veterinarian.