Camellia bushes have been popular since before the U.S. Civil War and were prized during Queen Victoria’s reign in England. People often think these beautiful shrubs are difficult to grow, but if you provide the correct conditions for them, you should enjoy abundant, although slow, growth in your camellias.
Choose Hardier Camellia Bushes
Camellias are glossy evergreen shrubs that feature red, white and pink flowers. Since the United States National Arboretum lost most of their camellias to a devastating spate of winter weather in the late 1970s, they began cultivating hardier, hybrid varieties. As a result, camellias can now grow as far north as the mid-Atlantic region (USDA zone 6b).
When you plant a camellia, dig a hole that is about two feet wider than the root ball, but only deep enough to situate the plant so that the top of the roots are slightly out of the ground. Choose a partially shaded spot away from any other shallow roots. Cover the root ball with dirt, then create a berm, or a raised ring of dirt surrounding a three-foot area around the tree. Fill the area inside the berm with straw to further help retain water until the camellia takes root. Leave about five feet between camellia shrubs so that they will have plenty of room to mature.
After planting and until the camellia takes root, water often and quite a bit. You want the soil to stay damp but take care that you don’t overwater. A marshy environment will lead to root rot. After the roots develop, during dry weather, give your shrubs a long drink of water about once a week. Use a 3 to 4-inch layer (no thicker) of bark or pine straw on top of the ground once the roots develop. This will help control weeds, even out the soil temperature and retain moisture.
In early March, May and July, give your camellias a good quality, slow-release feed. The fertilizer should contain nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, as well as minor elements. Follow the directions on the package, taking care to pull back the mulch or straw first to apply directly to the soil. Use the prescribed amount of water, then recover the soil with mulch or straw. Younger camellias need more nitrogen.
Pests and Diseases of Camellias
Watch your camellias for signs of disease or pests. At first sighting, treat them. Early treatment is key to protecting your shrubs.
- To prevent cankers or blight, use a fungicide in the springtime or after you prune in winter or early spring.
- Use an oil spray in the spring to guard against scale.
- Apply a miticide if you notice spider mites.
- Use a soap spray for aphids.
Prune camellias in winter or early in the spring months. Don’t prune drastically. Instead, trim out some of the inner branches to give the plant air circulation and to prevent disease. Keep your pruning tools clean and do not compost your clippings. Put them in the trash bin or burn them to keep disease at bay.
If you are careful to follow these instructions, your camellias should thrive. To learn more about camellias or find local groups where you can meet others interested in growing camellias, visit the American Camellia Society website.