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Past Articles Library | Need some Winter Color consider planting a Camellia

If you are familiar with plants, you may be scratching your head at this point going that species name looks familiar. First, all Camellias come from the Orient where 200 species can be found. In the Japanese culture, this plant is held in high regard and is referred to as the “tsubaki” or tree with shining leaves. This species is a popular plant that can be found displayed around temples, and graveyards. In the Shinto religion, it is believed that the when the spirits visit the earth they utilize the flowers of this plant as their home. Also, the fact that when the flower of this plant is spent the whole flower will come off the stem makes it unsuitable for a cut flower in the Japanese culture. The reason being is not only from the aspect of the home for the spirits but also because it symbolizes the “beheading” of a man.

While this species holds religious meaning to the Japanese culture, it also provides the ingredients for a delicious drink and that is tea. The Camellia sinensis is the plant by which we get our tea from and while this plant has a very long history, due to this species function and beauty it has been bred to create over 20,000 varieties.

Regardless of the number of Camellia, Linnaeus named this plant after a Jesuit Priest stationed in the Philippines, Joseph Kamel.

When it comes to use in the United States, very few species and varieties are used in landscape design but two of the favorites are Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua along with their cultivators. The camellia japonica will grace your winter landscape with blooms while Camellia sasanqua will add to the fall color with its own array of color.

Planting your Camellia

When it comes to using this plant in your landscape design, there are a few things to consider. First, for winter hardiness you need to live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 7 through 10. Second, they need room. The mature height of this plant is 6 to 12 feet with a spread just as wide. Third, they require partial to full shade. If they receive too much sun, the leaves will be scorched and/or turn yellow. But, an odd habit of this plant is the fact that red flowered Camellias tend to tolerate more sun exposure than white. In doing so, if you have a red-flowered Camellia it can be planted more in the open compare to the rest but in general an area that receives dappled sunlight is best regardless of flower color.

Another factor to consider when picking a location is the root system of the surrounding plant material. Camellias do not do well around shallow-rooted plants. The reason for this is the fact that they compete for soil nutrients.

Beyond these requirements, the soil needs to be slightly acidic and well draining.

Now that you know what type of area by which you can successfully plant your Camellia, the next step is to discover when to plant. If you live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8 through 10 then you can plant your Camellia fall, winter or spring. On the other hand, if you live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7 then you will need to only plant in the spring. The reason for this is so that the roots can become established before winter.

Once you know when to plant, the next step is to learn how to proper plant the Camellia. When digging the hole, you will need to make it twice the width of the container it was grown in along with the same depth. To keep water from settling around the base of the plant, create a small hill in the center of the hole by which you will place the Camellia on top of to raise the center slightly above the soil level. After the hole is dug do a test run of the hole with the plant still in the container. If the hole is correct, move on to properly removing the plant from the pot.  

The easiest and safest way to remove a plant from its container is to cut the pot away. Next, remove the plant and tease the roots. Some individuals like to rinse all the soil off the roots and then loosen them up so that the root ball is no longer in a tight mass. Others like to just take the fingers and work the soil and roots loose around the root ball. Either approach will work but regardless of which one you pick keep in mind that this is an important step. Skipping this step will not allow the roots to grow outward into the soil.

After this has been done, place your Camellia in the center of the hole on the hill and fill in with a combination of removed soil and well-seasoned compost. Once the hole has been filled, water the plant in and add additional soil as needed do to settling. Top the area with one inch of organic mulch, such as straw.

As the plant grows, continue to add mulch outward to aid in maintaining a moist soil.

In the spring after the plant has finished blooming, feed it a balanced fertilizer such as a 10-10-10 formulation.

This plant rarely needs to be pruned to control growth but always remove any branches that are crossed over and rubbing along with any that may be diseased or damaged.

Propagating Camellia

When it comes to sharing the wealth of this plant, you can propagate through air layering, cuttings or seed. The first two techniques will be covered since these are the easiest.

Air layering consists of taking a healthy branch that is 12 to 24 inches in length and girdling the branch toward the trunk so that 1 ½ to 2 inch strip of the green part of the bark (cambium layer) is removed. Dust this area with a rooting hormone. Cover the area with moistened sphagnum moss that has been squeezed out to remove excess water. Secure this medium to the area by wrapping it with clear plastic wrap. Tie the ends off of the plastic wrap with garden twine.

To keep the birds from trying to harvest the sphagnum moss for their nests, cover this area with aluminum foil with the dull side up.

Once you see the roots growing through the sphagnum moss, cut the branch off from the mother plant; remove the foil and plastic wrap and place the rooted Camellia in a bucket of water until ready to plant. Do not try to remove any of the sphagnum moss. Some will soak off and what remains will not hurt anything.

Plant your rooted Camellia as described above.

The other approach is through cuttings. This process should begin anytime between July and August. What you will need to look for is healthy branches. From these you will take an angle cut that is three to four inches long with two to three leaves on the end. As you cut, dip the cut end into a rooting hormone and place in a flat of moist sphagnum moss.

Mist your planted containers often to keep the planting medium evenly moist. With perfect conditions, you should have rooted cuttings in 1 ½ to 2 months. How do you know they are rooted? Gently tugging on the cuttings will tell you. If the cutting resists then you have roots in the planting medium.

Continue to care for the cutting by planting in individual pots until the time to place in your landscape.


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