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Growing Camellias

By: Kathryn Courtney
When I was a child growing up my Grandparents lived in a small town in east Texas close to the Louisiana border. I loved visiting there. My favorite thing was my Grandmothers garden. It was a magical place with stunning azaleas, bridal wreath, wisteria and even strawberries and peanuts. What I remember best is the camellia tree outside the door. It was taller than the house and when it bloomed it was amazing. I always told myself as soon as I had my own garden I would grow a camellia. I have grown Yuletide, Bonanza, Fairy, White by the gate and many more. Camellias require some maintenance but they are well worth the effort.

 

   Camellias came to the south from Asia first as a means to grow tea. The leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis were used to make tea in America as it was very expensive to ship tea from Europe. Green, black, white and oolong teas all come from this plant. This camellia was very useful but for beauty, in the garden the japonica and sasanqua varieties quickly replaced the sinensis. Camellias japonica and sasanqua are the species you see in gardens today. Japonicas are the most well-known camellias. They have the largest, showiest flowers and can get quite tall. They have a more upright habit than sasanquas which tend to be bushy.Most gardeners prefer to grow japonicas although they are somewhat harder to grow than sasanquas. Japonicas tend to bloom in mid-winter whereas sasanquas bloom in late fall.

 

   Camellias are fussy about their growing conditions. They need very well draining, acidic soil. In our area, this means growing them in raised beds and adding acidic garden soil and fertilizer to keep them happy. Containers are also a great way to grow camellias but the container needs to be large enough to meet the camellias needs. If you’re not sure about the size of container you need for the variety you want, ask at the nursery. We can find out for you. When planting camellias in either a garden or a pot, make sure you have the right soil. Soil for roses, azaleas, or blueberries is a good choice. At Maas we have acidic soil in bags ready to go. Plant your camellias in morning sun and afternoon shade. Our harsh summer sun will burn camellia leaves. This is actually a nice trait for camellias to have as it gives the gardener a good choice for color in shady areas. Plant camellias with their root balls above the ground by about 3 to 4 inches. Mound the acidic soil around the root ball. If camellias are planted low in the garden their roots will rot. After planting, water them in thoroughly. While camellias are establishing themselves water regularly. After the first year they are fairly drought tolerant but will perform better with consistent watering. Fertilize the camellias 3 times. Twice in spring and once in early summer. The beginnings of March, April and May are good times to get fertilizing done. Use a fertilizer for acidic plants to keep the camellias happy. Camellias will not freeze but frost can hurt the blooms and buds. If a hard frost is coming cover your buds with freeze cloth or burlap. This may save your buds.

Camellias do have some pest problems. Tea scale seems to be the largest problem in our area. If your camellia leaves are starting to yellow, look on the underside of the leaf. If you see small white or dark brown bugs there then you probably have scale. You can treat tea scale organically with a mixture of neem oil and orange oil. Drench both sides of all the leaves to get rid of the scale. Do this once a month for 3 months and that should take care of the problem. If you still have scale then chemical systemic drenches are available. If you have to use a systemic drench do not do it when the plant is flowering. Bees love camellias and the drench is very bad for the bees. Another problem that camellias can have is petal blight. This is a fungus that causes the flowers to turn brown and fall off. The best cure for petal blight is to remove all flowers showing brown edges and pick up any that have fallen on the ground. The fungus spores also get in the mulch so removing the mulch and replacing it with new mulch is a good idea. Another problem that I have encountered is leaves that turn yellow but still have green veins. This is called chlorosis and can be fixed by adding chelated iron to your soil. A good preventative is to add chelated iron once a year regularly to prevent chlorosis.

 

   Growing camellias requires some dedication from the gardener but the reward when the plant blooms is so wonderful that the little things camellias require seem trivial. Come to the nursery and see the large variety of camellias on hand with more coming in soon. Be sure to smell them. Some have truly wonderful scents. Everyone should have at least one camellia in a shady garden spot. Float camellia flowers in a glass bowl for an instant centerpiece. Put a rocker or lounge chair beside your flowering plant and enjoy the fragrance( if you choose one with fragrance) and beauty that all camellias provide.