Camellias

Camellias offer striking foliage, brightly colored blooms and elegant shaping as a foundation shrub. Camellias are typically a southern bloomer and are even Alabama’s state flower, but more than 3,000 species of the plant exist making camellias available to many different areas.

Choosing a location:

They are very deer resistant and come in a wonderful range of different sizes, forms and colors. Although, they can be a bit finicky with their requirements for planting, they’re fairly easy to grow as long as they get plenty of water. The ideal environment for your camellia shrub is a sunset climate zone ranging from 4 to 9 with partial shade and a slightly acidic soil.

Planting directions (potted):

Your camellias will thrive in pots but may require a little extra care for them to grow and flower. They will require repotting every 2-3 years since the soil will become depleted and heavy after about 3 years.

1) Your container will need to have adequate drainage since camellias hate to have wet feet. Lining the bottom of your container with 2-3 inches of gravel will help keep your roots from getting water logged. Also, make sure that the bottom of the container has drainage holes.

2) Different types of soil affect how quickly water drains. Instead of slow draining gardening soil, use a fast-draining soil mix that’s specific for container use. Amend commercial mixes with finely composted pine tree bark or similar organic materials to make a good planting medium.

3) When potting your camellia be sure not to plant it any deeper than it was in the original container it came in. You’ll want to avoid covering any surface roots, as this can be disastrous. Leave your soil level a couple inches lower than the rim of your pot.

Planting directions (in ground):

It’s always good to test your soil with a pH meter before planting anything that requires more acidity to flourish.

iStock_000015095863_Large copy1) Select a planting site where the soil is well draining and no standing water collects. Remember, camellias are susceptible to root rot. Afternoon shade is good to protect the camellia from getting too hot during the warmer months.

2) Camellias need a slightly more acidic soil to thrive; specifically a 6.0-6.5 pH is ideal. If you need to raise the acidity of your soil then mix in some peat moss, pine needles, lime, coffee grounds or decaying oak leaves.

3) Also, provide more nutrients by adding peat moss, compost or humus to the soil before planting. As they break down they will feed the camellia’s root system.

4) Dig your hole about 2 inches shorter than the depth of the root ball and 2 feet wider than the width. This will allow space for the roots to branch out and keep the top of the root ball above the rim of the hole. Loosen up the soil at the bottom of the hole with a gardening claw or rake in order to make it easier for the roots to expand.

5) Place your camellia on top of the loosened soil, the top of your root ball should poke out of the hole slightly. Carefully back-fill your hole with the enriched soil until the root system is completely covered and mound the soil over the top. Press down gently on the topsoil to stabilize your camellia.

iStock_000002925727_Large copy6) Make a circular ridge of soil 2-3 feet away from the shrub and press down firmly to keep your soil from washing away.

7) Water thoroughly but do not leave your shrub in standing water. You’ll want to water regularly at first until the roots become better established, then soak once a week to encourage deeper root growth (camellia roots tend to stay more towards the surface). Adding mulch around your camellia will help the soil retain moisture, regulate temperature and prevent weeds from growing.

Watering:

iStock_000001463675_Large copyFeel the soil under the layer of mulch every few days. If the soil is dry then gently give your camellia a few gallons of water, allow the water to soak into the soil as you pour. If you planted in the warmer season you may need to monitor the moisture every day. In cooler, moist weather you may not need to water for weeks. During the blooming season increase the watering a bit to encourage fuller blossoms.

Always be cautious of your watering habits though, water logging can lead to root rot, which can be lethal to your camellia. Potted camellias should be watered as needed. Using your finger, probe the soil to see how moist it is. Always allow your soil surface to become dry before watering but don’t wait to the point of drought stress. Water until you see water draining from the bottom of the pot.

Fertilizing:

Fertilize your camellia in the spring after the flowers have dropped. Do not fertilize sick or distressed camellias or when temperatures are above 90 degrees because this can result in leaf burning. Using a soluble fertilizer for acid loving plants once or twice a month in spring and mid-summer is best.

A slow release fertilizer such as Osmocote or Dynamite is useful if you would like to fertilize your camellia less frequently. Another method is to use liquid fertilizer for acid loving plants, which is applied while watering or spraying in the growing season. The labels on each of the fertilizers will show you how much fertilizer to apply based on the size of your plant.

Pruning:

After your blooming season has ended you’ll want to remove any dead or weak wood (a gray tinge to the bark is an easy way to identify dead branches). Thin out the growth a bit when your camellias become so dense that blooms will have difficulty emerging. Shorten lower limbs to encourage more upright growth and make scrawny shrubs a lot bushier. Prune the thick area on the stems, which will mark where the prior year’s growth ended.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPruning above the growth scar will help motivate dormant buds to form below. Remove crossing branches to avoid scraping wounds, your camellia should be pruned to the point where a bird can fly freely through it. Thinning the center of the canopy improves air circulation, which prevents sooty mold and petal blight.

Prune your potted camellia’s stems back hard in the spring season after flowering. The buds form on the tips of the newer branches and pruning your potted camellia will keep them a more manageable size and will encourage more branching.

Aside from it’s beautiful blooms your camellia plant has a history of use from the oil that is derived from the shrub itself. The oil has nutritional and healing properties making it useful for medicinal formulas. The Chinese would use the oil as a hair conditioner, skin moisturizer and to aid in recovery of wounds and scrapes.

Your blooms can also be made into beautiful centerpieces or used a single bloom with leaves to add a touch of color to any room. Camellias are also known for their surprise blooms that can pop out at almost any time of the year. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a bloom or two peaking out of the late winter snow, a fantastic addition to your home and garden.