Known for luxuriant blossoms that rival the most beautiful roses, camellias have been the pride of southern gardeners for years. While envious northerners put gardens to bed for winter, their southern counterparts enjoyed glossy evergreen foliage and stunning cool-season camellia blooms. Thanks to new cold-hardy varieties, gardeners outside the South can now experience the thrill of fall and winter camellia blossoms. Whatever your growing goals, these simple camellia essentials can help get you started:
- Choosing Your Camellias
- Selecting and Preparing a Site
- Timing Camellia Plantings
- Caring for Camellias Year-Round
Choosing Your Camellias
Most of the camellias grown in U.S. gardens fall into one of two categories: the classic Japanese types or the sasanqua types. Japanese camellias, known by the scientific name Camellia japonica, are the common camellia most people think of first. Depending on the region, Japanese camellias start blooming in mid-to-late winter and continue into early spring. Sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua) bloom earlier in the camellia season, flowering from mid-fall into early winter. Crosses between these and other camellia species may bloom throughout these cool seasons.
In choosing camellias for your garden, cold hardiness is an important consideration, especially in more northern regions. Most camellia varieties flourish from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 through 10, where extreme winter temperatures stay above zero degrees Fahrenheit.1 However, new camellia varieties — with names that hint at cold, such as Ice Angels, Snow Flurry and Winter's Star — withstand winters where temperatures dip as low as minus 10 F. These varieties put camellias within the grasp of gardeners through the nation's midsection to the lower Great Lakes and inland along both coasts into USDA zone 6.
In garden settings, Japanese camellias typically reach 6 to 12 feet in height and width, but they can grow twice that tall. Their dark, leathery, 4-inch leaves complement blooms measuring 5 to 6 inches across. Sasanqua camellias range from compact types a foot or two tall — perfect for small spaces or decorative containers — up to 12-foot-tall types. Their dark, glossy leaves and their abundant flowers both measure about one-half the size of Japanese types. Planting different varieties adds spice to your garden and extends your camellia season by months.
Choosing and Preparing a Site
Adequate sunlight and proper soil are essential to camellia beauty and longevity. These long-lived shrubs do best where they get plentiful morning sun — essential for abundant blossoms — and filtered or dappled shade during the afternoon, when rays intensify. Too much sun brings faded flowers and scorched, lackluster leaves, but too much shade leads to poor growth and few blooms.2 The hotter your climate, the more protection camellias may need. The best sites provide good air circulation and protection from drying winds as well.
Camellias thrive in fertile, well-drained soil that's high in organic matter; they will not tolerate wet, soggy planting sites. Heavy, compacted soils benefit from soil amendments such as Lilly Miller Garden Gypsum to loosen compacted soils that inhibit healthy camellia root growth. A 3- to 6-inch layer of organic matter, such as compost or earthworm castings, worked down into the soil about the a typical shovel's depth, improves soil structure and provides other benefits.
Proper soil pH is critical for camellias, so take time to test your soil before you plant. If you're new to soil testing, it's simple. Your county extension agent can help with kits and advice. Like homegrown blueberries and azaleas, camellias are acid-loving plants. They do best when soil pH stays near 5.0 to 6.5.2 In high-pH or alkaline soil, essential nutrients become unavailable and yellow, chlorotic leaves result. Soil testing reveals where your pH stands and what adjustments you need. Products such as Lilly Miller Ammonium Sulfate 21-0-0 lower soil pH, while Pennington Fast Acting Lime raises soil pH to restore balance when soil becomes too acidic.
Timing Camellia Plantings
When you live USDA zones 8 through 10 — the heart of traditional camellia country — you can plant camellias any time of year except summer. However, fall planting allows camellias to get well-established before summer heat and stresses arrive. In cooler areas such as USDA zones 6 and 7, where winter extremes range from 10 degrees above zero to 10 degrees below,1 winter comes too fast for fall establishment. In these zones, plant camellias in spring.
Always plant camellias so the top of their root ball sits two to three inches higher than the surrounding soil level. Their roots are sensitive to being planted too deep, so higher planting allows camellias to settle slightly and still get all the oxygen roots need.2 Pennington Ultragreen Plant Starter with Vitamin B1 at planting time helps reduce the chance of transplant shock. Add a thin layer of organic mulch or added earthworm castings over the planting area to help keep soil temperatures and soil moisture on even keels.
Caring for Camellias Year-Round
Many gardeners are used to plants that flower during their active growing periods, but camellias run on opposite schedules. Their most active growth periods occur during spring and summer, after blooming ends. Camellias set their flower buds during this time; then they flower during their fall and winter periods of dormancy or rest. If your plants need minor pruning, prune right after blooms end or you risk removing the buds that bring your next blooms.
After a winter of heavy flowering, camellias need replenishing with nutrients to fuel the growth ahead.3 Feed camellias their first feeding in early spring, after blooms pass and before new buds begin to swell. A premium plant food designed specifically for acid-loving plants such as Pennington Ultragreen Azalea, Camellia & Rhododendron Plant Food 10-8-6 provides a sound foundation of major nutrients along with essential micronutrients camellias need — and it keeps on feeding for up to four months. Give camellias a second, final feeding in early-to-mid summer. This carries them through until fall, while they prepare for rest and beautiful blooms. Avoid late-season feedings, which encourage vulnerable new growth and inhibit hardiness.
Established camellias generally need less moisture than summer lawns. Supplement rainfall, as needed, so they receive about 1 inch of water every two weeks. As buds develop and flowering time approaches, keep plants well hydrated with up to 1 inch per week. Avoid large fluctuations in moisture; overwatering or underwatering can cause buds to fail and drop. Stay consistent, and camellias reward your efforts.
Whether you're trying camellias in your garden for the very first time or you're boosting plants to new levels of beauty and health, the Pennington and Lilly Miller brands are here to help. With timely email tips, expert online resources and premium lawn and garden products, Pennington is committed to helping you learn and grow, so your garden can be everything you've dreamed.
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1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map."
2. Brown, S.P., “Camellias at a Glance," University of Florida IFAS Extension, March 2017.
3. Trehane, J., “Introduction to Camellia Cultivation," International Camellia Society.