Camellia japonicahas dark green, lustrous, leathery leaves and its size will vary according to the variety, but it could grow to about 4 x 3 m.
The 250 species of stately, winter-blooming evergreens that make up the genus Camellia originated in the East, but there are now more than 3 000 named hybrids found around the world. This makes it almost impossible to classify each of these ornamental shrubs or trees according to their botanical names and origins without the help of a camellia expert, so when we choose them for planting it is usually according to the type of flower. The blooms are described as being either single, semi-double, double or formal double, and in the shape of an anemone, peony or double rose. The flower sizes and colours differ dramatically from hybrid to hybrid; there are variations of white, pale white, soft pink, bright pink, shocking pink, watermelon pink, light red and very deep tomato red. In addition, some blooms have bold splotches of colour and some have protruding yellow filaments. Camellias, along with many of the other ‘old fashioned’ shrubs, have fallen out of favour somewhat, probably because they are slightly harder to propagate and take several years before they become marketable. Out of season and without their attractive blooms, they remain unappreciated in nurseries unless someone is specifically looking for them and knows the particular hybrid she seeks by name. However, they are on our list because they are one of the hardiest of the garden shrubs, and especially suitable for very cold and ‘difficult’ climates.
When do they bloom?
The breathtaking flowers appear from early autumn throughout winter and into spring.
Most suitable climate
Camellias prefer cool climates and are suitable for very cold winter gardens. They are frost hardy.
What they need
Location: sun or shade. Morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal. Camellias prefer to grow in the dappled shade of large trees, but deep shade reduces the number of flowers.
Soil: camellias prefer cool, moist, acidic soil (but they are more tolerant to higher pH levels than azaleas). Add acidic or coarse compost to the planting holes and always put down a layer of pine needle mulch. Camellias need soil that drains well, so perform this test before planting: dig a generous planting hole, fill it with water and check it the next morning. If the soil is damp rather than soft mud, you can plant with peace of mind. If you simply must have camellias but your soil is unsuitable, remember that they make good container plants.
Water: camellias are medium to high water consumers, but do not like constantly wet feet.
Fertilizing and pruning: camellias are hungry plants – they need loads of energy to produce their masses of flowers. The secret is a dose of slow-release fertilizer in late spring when blooming ceases, and a thin mulch of well-decomposed compost that continually releases nutrients and keeps the soil cool and relatively damp until you water it again. Camellia roots are quite shallow so the layer of mulch must be thin – rather add more compost when necessary. Foliage that becomes too dense limits the amount of sunlight that reaches the central branches, and this in turn reduces the number of flowers formed. A light prune of the inner branches (once flowering season is over) will solve the problem, and prune away any untidy stems at the same time. Fairly rigorous pruning of sparse plants can help to encourage new growth. Camellia sasanqua hybrids respond particularly well to heavy pruning; this trait can be exploited to make them into attractive hedges.