Horticulture Magazine

Camellia Shrub Care & Growing Tips

camellia shrub with bright pink flowers and dark green foliage

Camellia Overview

Official Plant NameCamellia
Plant TypeShrub
Native AreaEast / South Asia
Hardiness RatingH5
ToxicityNone
FoliageEvergreen
FlowersSolitary or clustered flowers
When To SowJanuary, February, March, October, November, December
Flowering MonthsJanuary, February, March, April, May, June, October, November, December
When To PruneApril
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Shade / Partial Shade

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
4 – 8M

Spread
4 – 8M

Bloom Time
Autumn and Winter or late Winter/early Spring (depending on type)

Soil

Preferred
Clay, loam, sand

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Acidic / Neutral

An elegantly ornamental plant with great cultural significance in the Far East, the Camellia used to be a firm favourite of European High Society in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Then the American South made the Camellia its own. With finely-sculpted pastel-toned blooms that present an appearance somehow sensuous yet dignified, could Camellias become all the rage on the Continent once again?

Though Camellias are native to a limited range in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of East Asia and South-East Asia, they have been hybridised to Europe and the United States. A century ago Camellia flowers used to be just about the most fashionable in Europe. As popular as Camellia plants still are in many an European country, they are even more popular in the American South and California. As a result of their popularity, though there are 187 Camellia species, hybrids and cultivars number about 3,000!

Camellias are – of course – highly valued in their native lands of East Asia and South-East Asia where they are not only popular but are an element of the cultures of the nations. On top of that, parts of the plant are even used for practical purposes. 

In general, Camellia plants are evergreen shrubs, mostly of erect or upright habit though a goodly number are rounded or spreading. Their heights typically range from 2 to 5 metres though old, well-cared-for plants are much taller. The simple leaves are usually thick, glossy and of a deep green colour. Many, though not all, Camellia varieties present very well as both the plant and the flower have a neat, manicured, and symmetrical appearance, especially the varieties of upright habit and flowers of Formal Double form.

tall camellia plants with pink flowers in South Korea
Mature, Tall Camellia Plants Bedecked with Flowers – Jeju Island, South Korea 

The flowers are large and showy and single form flowers have prominent yellow stamens. Single varieties have 5 to 9 petals. Many cultivars, including the most-prized ones, have semi-double or double corollas. The double forms are divided into a further three sub-forms but the ‘real’ double form is ‘Formal Double.’ Formal double form flowers do not display stamens. Their colours include white, off-white, and various shades of pink, rose, red, and fuchsia. Some varieties are double-coloured, these coming in striped, variegated, and dappled styles.

When other plants are dormant or dead, Camellia comes into its own and blooms. A smartly-chosen mix of Camellia varieties will reward you with colourful flowers from at least October through March.

Background and Origins

The origins of Camellia are shrouded in those proverbial mists of time. They are native to a swath of land from east of the Himalayas through China, Japan, the Koreas, and Vietnam up to Indonesia. In their native habitats various Camellia species grow wild in woods and fields. Several varieties have been grown in the gardens of the upper classes in China since no later than the Eleventh Century and possibly earlier.

In these East Asian countries they have been valued for many centuries for reasons aesthetic and also practical in view of the tea, oil, and medicinal compounds made or extracted from parts of this plant. Modern science has got around to recognising the plant’s curative properties. 

Camellias were naturalised in Great Britain in the 1740s in Essex. These were single types. By the end of that century more Camellia species had been brought to the country, cultivars had been developed, and the flower had become established. During the Mid-Nineteenth Century the Camellia was the flower of choice for aristocratic and High Society ladies in Western Europe. 

The Camellia is still the flower of choice for many a fashionable ‘Old Money’ household in the American South where the flower is as much a part of the floral scenery as magnolias. In fact, it is the state flower of Alabama. East Asian anthophiles would probably be chagrined to know that some Southerners consider the Camellia their own. And to think that this plant was introduced to the United States as late as 1797, and that too from Great Britain!

close up of white Nuccio's Gem flower
C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ – A Study in Perfection in White

Varieties

The most famous species, and the ones from which most hybrids and cultivars descend, are Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. Underneath we review these two species plus an even dozen varieties chosen for their marvellous blooms. Other important species include C. saluenensis, C. sinensis, C. reticulata, and C. chrysantha.

C. japonica is native to Southern China, Japan, and the Koreas, growing in nature on wooded hillsides. Its typical height is 5 to 6 metres though it can attain much taller heights. The distinctly leathery, glossy leaves are dark green. The showy flowers have a relatively robust look about them; they comprise of six or seven petals and are white or in tones of rose-red. They are 5 to 9 centimetres in diameter, while some cultivars’ flowers are up to 12 centimetres across. It blooms from the middle of winter to the end of Spring. It is not a profuse bloomer but flowers are relatively long-lasting.

C. sasanqua is native to Southern China and Japan. It too is found in nature on wooded hillsides. Its typical height is up to 4 metres and seldom gets very tall. The serrated leaves are glossy and of a deep-green hue. The flowers, though showy, are less so than those of C. japonica. They have a more delicate look, and the five to eight petals are usually ruffled or fluted. Flowers are 5 to 7 centimetres in diameter, while some cultivars’ flowers are up to 10 centimetres across. Blooming time is early Autumn to mid-Winter. They are very profuse bloomers but a flower lasts only two or three days.

Clearly, C. japonica and C. sasanqua are Nature-made complements for one another. Because sub-species and cultivars in the main inherit the parent species’s characteristics, these two species’ derivatives also complement each other wonderfully well. 

C. chrysantha is not a variety but a distinct species that is native to China and Vietnam. Unlike the other Camellias listed below, this one’s as common as hen’s teeth. If you can find a plant it will extend your garden’s Camellia blooming season clear into April. On top of that, the semi-double flower will introduce possibly the rarest colour for a Camellia to your collection: yellow! 

C. japonica ‘Akashigata’ aka ‘Lady Clare’ is a medium-sized shrub though its flowers are anything but. Up to 12 centimetres in diameter, they are among the largest but that is not this plant’s only attraction. The semi-double form flower has a somewhat delicate appearance and is gorgeously coloured; it ranges from pastel pink to deep, rich rose-pink.

C. sasanqua ‘Plantation Pink’ Of upright habit and robust appearance, this plant bears single to semi-double flowers whose fragile appearance contrasts with that of the plant. The stamens form a central yellow disk which sets off the soft pink petals. Quite often they are not exactly pink but a tone of bluish-pink that is unusual and highly appealing.

C. sasanqua ‘Plantation Pink’ flowers and green leaves
The Delicate Blue-Tinged Pink Coloured Flowers of C. sasanqua ‘Plantation Pink’

C. sasanqua ‘Winter’s Snowman’ The plant is large, the flower fragrant, and the stamens distinctly fewer and less prominent than in most varieties, and often hidden by a folded or ruffled petal. This clever concealment leaves the pure, snowy white of the semi-double flowers to make an even greater visual impact. 

C.x williamsii ‘E.G. Waterhouse’ could just as well be named ‘Pink Perfection.’ Carrying a hue that is the very definition of pink and boasting perfect symmetry in its somewhat prim-looking formal double flower, it projects both softness and grace. The upright and neat habit of the plant only adds to the overall perfection.

C. sasanqua ‘Apple Blossom’ is one of the under-rated Camellia varieties. (There is also a C. japonica ‘Apple Blossom’.) Against a backdrop of darker than usual glossy leaves, the semi-double bloom looks absolutely ravishing. It is of a gradated tone, starting snowy white near the centre, developing pink tinges and tints, and finishing with rose pink at the edges.

C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ causes the word ‘perfection’ to come to mind again. Or the word ‘stunning.’ One scarcely pays heed to the shrub’s height or habit because this formal double is a pure, snowy white from centre to edge. Even an imperfect specimen may deceive you into thinking that you are admiring a flower sculpted from Parian marble.

C. japonica ‘Magnoliaeflora’ or ‘Magnoliiflora’ aka C. ‘Hagoromo’ is a cultivar dating from well over a century ago; it is of medium height and spreading habit. The semi-double flowers are among the loveliest; to begin with they present an unusually symmetrical aspect. However, their unique loveliness derives from their very pale pink-purple-blue tones.

C. japonica ‘Margaret Davis’ is of upright habit with glossy bronze-green foliage behind a dazzler of a flower. In peony form, it is creamy white with rose-red edging as if stroked with a fine brush, and the red ‘bleed’ into the white makes the bloom even more arresting. This edging is present on all the petals and not just the outer ones.

C. japonica ‘Margaret Davis’
C. japonica ‘Margaret Davis’ displaying distinctive red edging with some ‘pigment bleed’

C. japonica ‘Eleanor Martin Supreme’ is an exhibit – for those who say that the Camellia flower presents a ‘sculpted’ aspect, Eleanor Martin Supreme shows off the ‘marbling.’ This unusual and beautiful American cultivar bears large semi-double bicoloured flowers that display white ‘marbling’ (or dappling) on a rose-pink background – or is it the other way round?

C. japonica ‘Higo Okan’ Now if marbled flowers are not your cup of tea but bi-coloured flowers are, try this evergreen shrub, the Camellia of the Samurai. As the stamens are even more numerous and prominent than usual, this single form flower effectively has a central disk in yellow, snow white petals, and an edging or bordering of varying thickness in shades of hard pink to scarlet.

C. japonica ‘Mercury Supreme’ is another bi-coloured variety but of an entirely different kind. The plant is smallish and compact, and yet again the flowers are at the other extreme, being 12 centimetres wide. Of semi-double form, the flowers display delightful bleeds, flecks, stripings, dapples, and splashes of red on a white background.

Habitat & Growing Conditions

In nature both C. japonica and C. sasanqua are found at elevations of up to 1000 metres in the wooded and forested regions of China, South Korea, and the south of Japan. They grow in acidic soils. 

 In Japan C. japonica are adapted to freezing temperatures and snow. They rejuvenate and flower after the passage of winter.

Camellia species do not favour full sun though most species will grow and even thrive in full shade. Their preference is for part-sun, part-shade exposure where they are sheltered from the mid-day and afternoon sun. Indeed, they are accustomed to this type of shelter in their native woody and forested habitats where they are also shielded from strong, cold winds. 

The vast majority of Camellias are hardy between USDA Zones 7 through 10. Newer hybrids bred for hardiness are good down to Zone 6. Camellia cultivars that are hardy in sub-freezing temperatures are identified by the word ‘Winter’ in their names.

Camellia Japonica shrub covered in snow
Camellia Japonica in Bloom While Coated with Snow in Japan

When and Where to Plant Camellia

Camellias may be planted in pots but at some point these long-lived plants will need to be transplanted to larger containers or into the ground. What is important is to limit exposure to the sun and wind.

They are best grown in a location of partial shade where they are shielded from the afternoon’s hot sunshine though they will happily thrive in shadier locations too. Seedlings and growing plants need such sheltering even more than mature plants. Plants should also be protected from stiff, cold winds. 

In view of their preferences, Camellias should be planted under the shade of larger plants or trees or close by some structure or a wall. Optimally these plants should be shielded from the southern sun in the summer and from north winds in winter.

The ideal time to grow Camellia is in spring for a ‘triple play.’ The flowering season is over, the cold winter has departed, and new plants can get established before the return of winter. 

Feeding, Care & Growing Tips

Camellias are best grown in loam soils composed of clay and sand. It prefers moist soil but it needs very good drainage – it is very susceptible to root rots. 

This acid-loving plant thrives in soil with a pH from 5.0 to 6.5, a range that spans the classifications of Strongly Acidic through Moderately Acidic to Slightly Acidic. Different varieties have their own particular preferences but these vary only in the extent of the acidity. These plants will not do well, and some varieties will not even survive long, in chalky or limy soils.

The amount of watering Camellias require is strongly dependent on several factors, including the particular variety, the geographical location, the climate, and the sun-shade mix. On this fundamental and very important gardening question, there is no one good answer. However, they should be watered fairly frequently, and during flowering season the soil should be kept moist and not allowed to dry out.

After the flowering season is over for the particular variety in question (that is between December and April) plants can be fed with a special fertilizer meant for acid-loving flowering plants (Camellia, Azalea, Rhododendron). If the soil is rich and fertile to begin with, fertilize with restraint.

Camellias can be grown in a few different ways. They can be started from seed though this method should be used only by patient and expert gardeners as it is difficult and because it takes the plant over four years to start to flower. Most varieties are more easily grown by taking cuttings from mature, semi-hardwood stalks. They can also be grown by layering, in which a slit is made in a stalk which is then gently bent and pushed into the soil, and immobilised there.

Pruning Camellia

Camellias do not need to be pruned and in the main are better left unpruned. What little pruning may be necessary for a particular plant is best done soon after the end of the flowering season.

All you need to do is to deadhead and remove damaged or diseased parts. You may trim for shape or to thin very dense growth but this should be done sparingly and judiciously.

Common Diseases & Problems

Camellias are more prone to pests and diseases than most other plants. These problems are fairly extensive and they even differ from geographical location to geographical location.

In the United Kingdom the main threats are aphids. They are also susceptible to vine weevil and scale diseases. 

The fungal infections you need to be vigilant for include leaf gall, root rots and petal blights.

Value and Benefits of the Camellia Plant

If you enjoy tea you are probably drinking Camellias, so to speak. C. sinensis, a well-known species, has been especially cultivated in China for centuries. Different teas, including black tea, white tea, and the finest-quality green tea, are made from the young and tender leaves of this species. Also called ‘Tea Plant,’ it was originally grown on montane slopes in Southern China but is now naturalised to and grown in many tropical and subtropical regions worldwide. 

A sub-species native to Assam, C. sinensis assamica, is the plant used to make a very desirable rich black tea, Assam Tea. It is also the main input for most commercial black teas sold on the world market and in retail stores.

In Japan, C. sasanqua is used to make, among other things, teas. The plants seeds are pressed to extract oil. Oddly, this oil is used for both lubrication of machine parts as well as for cooking. In the same country, C. japonica seeds are also pressed for oil; this oil has traditionally been, and continues to be, an important ingredient in hair care products.

In China, the source of cooking oil for over one-third of the country’s inhabitants is the Camellia plant. This cooking oil is made by pressing seeds of C. oleifera, C. japonica, and C. sinensis.

Finally, both C. japonica and C. sinensis have medicinal benefits and are considered medicinal herbs (though they are not herbs from a Botanical standpoint). The petals have astringent and anti-haemorrhagic properties (among others) and the leaves contain anti-inflammatory terpenoids. For this reason these species have long been used in East Asia to make salves with which to treat scalds, burns, bites, and skin inflammation.

Fun Fact – Camellias and Opera’s Number One Hit

The Camellia flower has an unique distinction among flowers to the extent that it leaves the rose and the lily trailing in its wake. The Camellia is linked to by far the most-frequently performed, and certainly the most popular, opera of all. Back in the mid-1880s, a French courtesan named Marie Duplessis gained renown for her native intelligence and her humane nature; as for her feminine charms, they transcended mere earthly beauty. The Camellia had been her signature flower. Duplessis’s early, tragic demise moved one of her devastated lovers, Alexandre Dumas fils, to write what was essentially a dramatised true story, La Dame aux CaméliasThe Lady of the Camellias – known as Camille in the English translation. 

Struck by the novel and the resultant play, Giuseppe Verdi composed La Traviata with his gifted partner in crime, Francesco Maria Piave. Traviata had a mixed reception at its premiere in 1853 at Fenice but within a short time was acknowledged as a masterpiece. Now, after over 150 years, the opera based on a courtesan with camellias, renamed Violetta Valery in the opera, is the art form’s Number One hit.

There is yet another connection between the flower and the opera: soprano Adelina Patti was the most celebrated Violetta of her time – and she has a Camellia cultivar named after her!

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