Camellias are one of the most popular evergreen early flowering garden shrubs, providing a short-lived but often intense splash of colour. As woodland plants, they grow best in light shade, although with watering and care some types will also thrive in sunnier spots.
The camellia is a close relative of the plant that fills our cherished tea bags. It is named after a Czech Jesuit priest and pharmacist called George Kamel, who was born in 1661. His dispensing cabinet included some derivatives of camellia collected from the Far East.
Camellias were cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan for centuries before they were brought to Europe. They were first recorded in England in 1739, when two red-flowered Camellia japonica bloomed in Lord Petre’s hothouse at Thorndon Hall in Essex. The conditions killed the plants, but not before cuttings were successfully raised in a more suitable outdoor situation. Some of the first named varieties from the far east soon followed, including Camellia japonica ‘Alba Plena’ and ‘Variegata’, which were recorded on the import inventory of an East India Company ship in 1792.
The fate of Lord Petre’s original plants did not stop the Victorians building camellia houses, and Joseph Paxton’s 1840 camellia house at Chatsworth survives, with what are believed to be some of the original shrubs, which still bloom each year.
One shortcoming of Camellia japonica is that the flowers brown and stay on the plant as they die, giving a rather unhealthy and unattractive appearance. Deadheading a 5m tall floriferous camellia is a difficult task! In the 1920s, John Charles Williams crossed an unnamed Camellia japonica variety with Camellia saluenensis, and produced a hardy hybrid with small leaves subsequently called Camellia x williamsii. This was a major breakthrough, because it loses its flowers naturally as they go over. The introduction of many C. x williamsii cultivars has reinvigorated the reputation and popularity of camellias in British gardens.
This article looks at purchasing and establishing a camellia in the garden, and provides tips for on-going care.
There are many thousands of varieties of camellias available, some of which have been around for several hundred years, and some of which are very recent introductions that are still being tested for reliability in the garden. Some recommended varieties from the Camellia japonica, Camellia williamsii and less frequently encountered Camellia sasanqua groups are listed below. All of these have the RHS Award of Garden Merit.
Japonicas have been cultivated for a thousand years or more and were the first type of camellia to be imported to Europe. They do best in warmer areas when protected from strong winds and early morning sun. Their flowers are generally produced in a short but spectacular flush in March. They tend to be shy flowerers when young, but provide an improving spectacle after four or five years.
The final height depends on the cultivar, with most growing to between 2m and 3.5m. Most do not grow well in containers.
Japonica ‘Ballet Dancer’
One of the peony-form flowered shrubs, this cultivar has a compact, upright habit. The complex cream flowers grow to 7cm in diameter and have pale pink margins.
Japonica ‘Adolphe Audusson’
This strong growing but compact 5m tall camellia has large, rich scarlet, semi-double, 12cm diameter flowers with bright yellow stamens in early spring.
Japonica ‘Grand Prix’
‘Grand Prix’ is a vigorous, upright, medium-sized shrub with pendulous branches. It has bright red, semi-double flowers to 13cm across. It grows equally well in borders and containers in the south of England, and it responds well to training as an espalier.
Japonica ‘Alba Plena’
‘Alba Plena’ is a slow-growing, upright evergreen shrub with unusually pale green foliage and flat, medium-sized, formal, double flowers from March to April. The petals are white, and their density means that the stamens do not show.
Japonica ‘Carter’s Sunburst’
‘Carter’s Sunburst’ is a medium-sized to large, upright and compact shrub with blush-pink flowers to 12cm in diameter, striped deeper pink and varying from semi-double to formal paeony-style double on the same plant.
‘Bokuhan’ is an unusual dwarf camellia with very dark, glossy leaves and 5cm, anemone-like flowers with dark red outer guard petals and a compact and sharply contrasting white petaloid centre. It grows to a metre in height.
The williamsii hybrid varieties are more recent and the popular showy cultivars have been developed largely over the last 50 years. They are fully hardy in almost all parts of Britain and they produce a succession of blooms from early March to late April.
Williamsii have a more upright form than japonica and are less susceptible to wind damage. Most grow to a maximum height of 2m.
Most varieties are quite free flowering, although some need sunshine to ripen their flower buds.
‘Debbie’ is a 4m tall, strong growing shrub with pink blousy flowers in March and April. It is hardy down to -10°C.
‘Donation’ is one of the most popular camellias because it is particularly strong growing and free flowering. It has semi-double pale pink flowers from late February through until April. In the open it will achieve a height of up to 4m, but it can be grown in a container and pruned to a well formed shrub of 2m height and spread.
Williamsii ‘J C Williams’
This is one of the safest choices for the more northern parts of Britain, as it is hardier than most and has been grown successfully in colder areas since its introduction in the early 1940s. It has single, pale pink flowers.
Williamsii ‘Jury’s Yellow’
This variety has unusual flowers comprising bright white outer petals around a frilly clump of pale yellow inner ones.
Less well known in the garden than the other two types, the sasanqua camellias flower in early winter and some are slightly scented. Only a few varieties are easily available and they will only grow successfully in gardens in the south of England as the flowers are easily damaged by frost and cold winds. However, sasanquas make good container plants and they can be brought into a frost-free position for the winter, meaning they can be grown in sheltered spots across a much wider area. Most grow well under glass.
Most cultivars grow to a height and spread of around 2m.
Sasanqua ‘Crimson King’
‘Crimson King’ is hardy down to -5°C and does well slightly further north than other varieties, and with a little loving care it will flower from October to November in most normal winters as far north as the Midlands. It has single, deep crimson flowers with prominent golden stamens and a slight fragrance.
Sasanqua ‘Hugh Evans’
This variety grows to 3.5m and has a spreading shape that is ideal for growing against a wall. It will withstand a few degrees of frost after flowering but it is in reality confined to the south of England. It has single pink flowers that are slightly scented.
Sasanqua ‘Jean May’
‘Jean May’ bears delicate, semi-double, pale pink flowers with an orange centre from late October to early December. It has a semi-upright and open form and will achieve 3.5m in height.
Larger when fully grown than most other sasanquas, ‘Narumigata’ grows into a 6m bushy tree. It has single, white flowers with a pinkish tinge from October to November.
New camellias are best bought in containers and the optimum time to plant them is autumn. Spring planting is also possible, though the roots will need to be kept moist through the first summer until well established.
In their native habitats, camellias enjoy the protection of an open forest canopy, and this can provide some pointers when choosing a good location in a garden. Shelter is important, and while occasional windy conditions will do little harm, camellias hate sitting in continuous draughts. Some of the williamsii varieties will tolerate more exposed positions.
Most types prefer partial or dappled shade, with the ideal being shade in the morning and some sunshine later in the day. A north- or west-facing wall in a sheltered courtyard is an excellent location, but not an east-facing wall where early morning sun can damage frosted buds and flowers.
An ideal soil is acidic and moisture retentive.
New camellias should be planted in holes around twice the diameter and depth of the root-ball. Half-fill the hole with ericaceous compost and a handful of blood, fish and bone and mix this into the base of the hole to encourage the roots to spread out into the surrounding soil.
Plant the camellia at the same depth as it was in the container, and gently firm it into the ground, backfilling around it with the excavated soil. Put a stake next to the plant to support it through the first couple of years, and use a tree tie to lightly fix the camellia to the stake. Water in well.
For the first three years, the new camellia will benefit from watering and feeding until the roots have developed sufficiently to look after the plant in all but the driest summer conditions. Camellias produce the next season’s flower buds from July onwards, and dry roots during this period can reduce the number of flowers that form. Drought stress is likely to result in bud drop at the first subsequent frost. Therefore, it is important to keep the plant well watered between July and September. An occasional boost of general organic fertiliser such as blood, fish and bone will also help, though do not use nitrogen-based fertilisers as these do not aid the formation of buds or flowering. Mulching with leaf mould in late autumn will help the plants through the first few winters.
Camellias grown indoors in a conservatory border or in large containers should be allowed to rest for a couple of months after flowering, watering only lightly and occasionally, and without the application of fertiliser. From early summer onwards, feed these plants with a diluted liquid fertiliser fortnightly until early August.
Camellias do best in a partially shaded position, with shelter from strong winds. If possible, choose a location where the plant in shaded from the early morning sun, but where it may get a little dappled sunshine later in the day. Camellia buds and flowers are easily damaged by a combination of overnight frost followed by early morning sun. The morning thaw needs to be gradual in order to protect the plant’s tissues.
In their native Asian woodlands, camellias enjoy rainfall in spring and summer but then see very little from autumn through to the following year. This pattern can be followed with young plants to help them settle quickly into the garden, though extended watering may be advisable in early autumn if the weather is unusually dry and warm.
Given their preference for acidic soil, camellias should not be watered regularly with tap water, especially if the supply originates from a calcareous catchment. Rainwater is better, and a water butt is an excellent addition to the camellia garden.
Camellias prefer free-draining conditions, with plenty of leaf mould incorporated into the soil to ensure good moisture-retention. The best soils for the plant are slightly acidic, between pH 5 and 6.5, although a neutral soil can be improved by adding ericaceous compost. Camellias are seldom successful in the long term on alkaline, chalky soils, even when modified or mounded.
Do not mulch camellias with spent mushroom compost, as this is alkaline and will gradually decrease the acidity of the soil.
Feed young camellias in spring and early summer for the first three or four years with acidic ericaceous fertilisers, such as sulphate of potash or a branded equivalent. Alternatively, use an organic-based fertiliser based on seaweed. Blood, fish and bone is suitable for occasional use on acidic soils, but its use should be avoided on neutral soils as it has a mildly alkaline pH. Do not feed camellias between mid August and late January.
Some types of camellia make good container plants, and this may be the only available method for growing them in areas with alkaline soil. Use a pot that is at least 40cm in diameter, and a loam-rich, multi-purpose potting compost, ideally John Innes ericaceous. Plants should be re-potted with fresh compost every second year. Re-potting is best done in spring. The addition of controlled release fertiliser pellets will avoid the need for further feeding for the rest of that season.
Container grown plants will need watering with rainwater at least twice a week in warm weather, especially those in smaller pots.
Plants in pots can be kept outside between May and October, and the pots wrapped in bubble-wrap or brought under glass for the rest of the year. Container plants are more susceptible to frost damage than those in the garden so the pot should be brought into a cool conservatory, porch, or a protected position by the house from November until April.
Looks good with
Camellias look their best when grown in an informal woodland garden setting. While not all gardeners have the space to replicate the plantings admired in the best collections such as at Exbury in Hampshire and Mount Edgcumbe Country Park near Plymouth, the principles can be translated to a smaller scale display under garden trees or in a mixed shrub border.
Traditional companions include smaller magnolias, rhododendrons, azaleas, Daphne, forsythia, witch hazel and Japanese maples, all of which appreciate the shady conditions and acidic soils. Inter-planting with drifts of early flowering ground layer plants such as bluebells, hellebores and lungwort is also effective, simulating the natural structure of the camellia’s native woodland home.
Camellias do not need regular pruning, though established bushes can be shaped by trimming off unwanted shoots immediately after flowering if necessary. Some growers choose to remove stems from the bottom 25cm or so of the main stem to keep the branches clear of the ground, and crowded bushes can be thinned to aid ventilation through the removal of any thin or poor growth.
Pruning any later in the year risks removing young flower buds and thus reducing the number of flowers the following year.
If an overgrown camellia needs to be renovated, hard spring pruning is usually safe, though it may take a few seasons for the plant to produce flowers again.
Camellias can be propagated from semi-ripe cuttings, hardwood cuttings and by layering. Spring semi-ripe cuttings are often more successful if a strip of bark is taken off the base of the cutting and the wound dipped in hormone rooting compound. Hardwood cuttings are taken in autumn or winter. The cuttings should be plunged into pots of ericaceous compost, well watered and covered with supported plastic bags. They need to be kept moist until rooted. This may take up to three months.
Some types of camellia will occasionally produce seed pods, especially the single varieties. These need to stay on the plant until ripe and splitting, which may not be until October. The flowers will almost certainly have been cross-pollinated, so the seedlings will not be true to the parent plant’s characteristics. Collecting and growing camellia seed is not simple, and it can take six years or longer for the plant to achieve flowering, so patience and good fortune is required, as the flowers may prove to be disappointing.
Common Camellia Problems
Camellias are subject to a variety of problems, especially if they are growing in suboptimal conditions. Like many evergreen plants, they are vulnerable to windy, cold or wet weather, and can suffer wind scorch, sappy oedemic tissue or a coating of algae on the leaves. Cold or windy conditions can also instigate bud drop at certain times of the year.
Leaf yellowing and general poor growth is common where plants are grown in neutral to alkaline soils.
In rural gardens, new plants may need to be protected, as they seem to be considered a delicacy by rabbits.
Camellias can attract a variety of pests, including camellia cushion scale and aphids. Container grown plants are vulnerable to vine weevil, and plants should be checked for root damage before purchase.
Infestations of aphids and scale insects can lead to the formation of sooty mould on the honeydew that they excrete onto the leaves. This should be wiped off as it inhibits light getting to the leaf, though it will not cause long-term harm. The insect infestation should be controlled by spraying or an organic alternative to avoid reoccurrence.
Camellias can develop diseases such as Camellia yellow mottle virus, camellia gall and Phytophthora root rot, and they are susceptible to honey fungus.
Camellia yellow mottle virus causes creamy-yellow blotches on the leaves, though it generally does not adversely affect the vigour of the plant. Camellia gall is caused by a fungus and is indicative of wet conditions. It generally impacts just a very small proportion of leaves on the plant. The affected foliage becomes swollen and turns white. While unsightly, it does not cause the plant a serious problem. Affected parts can be picked off and destroyed.
Perhaps the most commonly encountered disease is petal blight, which first gives the petals a rusty appearance, and then the whole flower browns and dies. The flower falls to the ground and becomes a source of future infection, sometimes several years later as the fungus can lie dormant for some time. Affected flowers should be collected up and burned.
Q The flowers on my camellia opened, but almost immediately went brown. Is this frost damage?
Frost is the most likely cause, especially if the plant gets the early morning sun. Some types are more susceptible than others to this problem, so you may wish to re-consider the planting position and cultivar.
Flowers can also turn brown and fall early due to fungal diseases such as grey mould and camellia petal blight.