Camellias – Southern Charm with a History

by Keith C. Hansen

Fall and winter bring out the flowers of one of the loveliest blooming shrubs we can grow – camellias. Like many other wonderful plants we grow and admire in the landscape, camellias are native to the Orient. European plant explorers to China, Japan and Korea found many wonderful plants both under cultivation and in the wild, sending them home where they quickly became fashionable in Victorian times.

Many folks are unaware that the leaves of a very close relative of garden camellias is the source of the beverage we call tea! Camellia sinensis has been grown and used in China since 2737 B.C., and it became a popular drink in Europe in the 17th century.

Due to the expense of transporting leaves from the Orient, the British became interested in establishing tea plantations in the southern colonies as early as 1744. Early plantings from seed in Georgia were not successful. According to Dr. Bill Welch’s research in ‘The Southern Heirloom Garden’, which he co-authored with Greg Grant, attempts to grow tea plants from seed in Cat Springs near Bellville, Texas, were also not successful, according to the Cat Springs Agricultural Society records!

A successful commercial planting of tea was finally established by the Lipton Tea Company near Charleston where it is still in production as the only commercial tea plantation in the U.S., currently under new ownership.

The most familiar of the camellias is Camellia japonica – often simply called ‘japonica’ – with varieties blooming from early winter through spring. Camellia japonica has been cultivated in the U.S. since about 1800, initially as tender greenhouse ornamental plants in the north. It wasn’t until 1819 that Camellia japonica was introduced into southern U.S. landscapes through a nursery in Charleston. Today, many large, old camellias grace old plantations and homesteads all across the south and many fine specimens can be found around Tyler and East Texas.

Camellia japonica flowers are large, often double and very showy. Because they bloom during the winter time, open flowers may be damaged by a freeze. But, if the buds are tightly closed, they are usually protected from freeze injury. The plants themselves are generally quite cold hardy for our area.

Camellia sasanqua has been cultivated since the mid 1800’s. Their individual blooms are not quite as showy as the more popular Camellia japonica – but are nevertheless great landscape plants. Of the two species, Sasanquas bloom earlier, which means their flowers usually escape freeze damage. Their smaller, usually simple flowers which are borne in great abundance, begin appearing locally as early as late September. What the flowers lack in individual substance is made up by the shear numbers of blooms.

Sasanquas make a stately accent shrub when grown singly near the house, in an opening, or in a mixed border. You can turn a larger specimen into a small “tree” by removing lower twigs and shoots to reveal its attractive, multi-trunk growth. Sasanquas’ growth habit also makes them a good candidate for an informal hedge in a partially shady spot.

All Camellias prefer a well-drained, yet moisture-retentive, acidic soil rich in organic matter, although sasanquas seem to tolerate poorer soil conditions. Most soils in East Texas support good camellia growth if properly amended. Prepare the soil before planting by incorporating lots of organic matter like compost or composted pine bark. The best time to plant camellias is October through March, although they can be established any time of the year if given proper care.

Plant camellias no deeper than they were grown in the container, digging the hole twice to three times as wide. Planting too deep is a good way to kill a camellia. If you have heavy clay soil, plant high and bring soil in to cover the root ball.

Although the best location for camellias is a partially shaded site, camellias will tolerate either shade or full sun, though growth will be spindly and blooming will be reduced in dense shade and leaf scorch can result in full sun. Flower color and growth is the best under the partial shade of tall trees, like pines. The north or east side of a house will also provide a good exposure.

A thick layer of mulch over the surface of the soil benefits the shallow root system by providing a more uniform soil temperature and moisture level. Established camellias will tolerate a temporary dry spell, but will perform much better if given supplemental water in the summer.

Lightly fertilize camellias after they finish blooming. There are specially formulated products for camellias and other acid-loving plants which you could use. Do not exceed fertilizer rate recommended on the package instructions. It is better to feed camellias small amounts a couple of times in the spring and early summer rather than one large dose.

Prune camellias, if needed, right after flowering in spring and early summer. Try to retain and enhance the natural form of the plant. Since camellias are rather slow growing, do not prune too heavily. Sasanquas respond well to pruning, and if started young, can be trained as an espalier on a wall or as a dense hedge.

Check camellias regularly for tea-scale on the underside of leaves. These small, sessile, white, thin, sap-sucking insects can build up large numbers if you do not regularly inspect your plants and take corrective measures when scale is first found. Often your first clue will be spotty yellowing on the upper surface of the leaves.

Horticultural oil can be used in the winter time if used before blooming or in spring after blooming. Do not apply horticultural oil when near-freezing temperatures may be expected. Always carefully read and follow pesticide label directions before use.

One disease that affects camellia flowers is camellia petal blight which will rapidly turn entire flowers brown. If a camellia has petal blight, remove and dispose of all blighted flowers both on the plant and on the ground. Discard old mulch and apply a deep layer of fresh mulch to help prevent spores from blowing back onto new flowers.

Another problem that sometimes appears is leaf galls that cause new leaves to grow abnormally thick. This is not a serious problem and only appears occasionally in moist spring weather. A virus is another disease that mottles leaves with various shades of yellow to white. The virus does not injure the plant, but the mottling can cause an objectionable appearance, and there is no cure or treatment.