Growing, pruning and caring for camellias

Cool season colour can be hard to come by in the garden. A camellia will bring some brilliant blooming bling to an otherwise subdued garden.

What you need to know about a camellia

Name: camellia, sasanqua, Camellia sasanqua cvrs.

Plant type: evergreen flowering shrub

Height: variable, from 50cm to 5m+

Foliage: mostly oval shaped, slightly serrated edges, glossy deep green, around 5cm long by 3cm wide.

Climate: tropical and sub-tropical, warm temperate and protected areas in cold temperate.

Soil: best in quality, well-drained soil, but adaptable to most types.

Position: full sun to part shade.

Flowering: late summer through to early winter. Whites, pinks and some rosy-reds.

Feeding: annual application of controlled-release fertiliser balanced for acid-loving plants.

Watering: reliable moisture, especially in warmer months, is essential.

Camelias

Appearance and characteristics of a camellia

A camellia offers masses of blooms into the cooler months, a naturally neat growth habit, and is a strikingly handsome plant even when not in flower, with glossy deep-green foliage.

Part of the beauty of the sasanqua camellia is its diversity. Despite technically being the same species, there can be vast variations in size and form. They’ll all have similar flower and foliage forms, but sizes range from a petite 50cm all the way through to some species that, with age, can reach over 5m.

The camellia’s growth habits also vary, from a neat upright bun, to spreading forms, to almost columnar shapes. This means you can find a sasanqua in a size and form to suit almost any need.

The camellia’s flowering display is nothing short of spectacular. It’s not unusual to see plants so covered in blooms that they all but conceal the foliage. The flowers are generally quite simple—a flattened layer of petals with a distinctive central boss of stamens. In some varieties the petals may be more ruffled, or double layer.

Uses for a camellia

The camellia used to be commonly planted as an individual feature plant, often in the centre of the lawn in its own bed. Today it is used in all manner of situations, including:

  • feature planting

  • hedges, screens and “garden room” dividers

  • backdrops for garden beds

  • formal gardens

  • large pots and tubs.

How to plant and grow a camellia

The amount of sunlight required may vary with different varieties, so always check the label. The rough rule of thumb is full sun through to part shade. Camellia plants in heavier shade will generally need more pruning to keep them bushy. Some growers recommend avoiding a position of early morning sun, as any dew or frost on the flowers can cause browning of petals when the sunlight hits the water droplets.

The sasanqua camellia prefers soil that is neutral to slightly acid—a pH of 5.0 to 6.5 will suit them well. The soil should be 30+cm deep, free-draining and reasonably fertile. In short, most varieties of camellia will perform well in normal, well cared for garden soil or quality potting mix.

Reliable moisture is essential, especially across peak flowering and leaf growth periods. The best way to optimise water use and keep moisture levels stable is to ensure your camellia is kept well mulched.

How to plant camellias

For the best results, improve the soil at planting time by following these steps:

  • Dig the hole at least twice as wide as the pot and a little deeper.

  • Blend a composted manure, such as cow manure, through the soil.

  • Allocate around half a bag per plant, with half of this (one quarter of a bag) being mixed into the soil and the other half being used as top dressing once planted. Spread the allocated manure on the surface, along with a quality controlled-release fertiliser that’s balanced for camellias.

  • Water thoroughly, then apply a layer of mulch at least 5cm thick, avoiding pushing against stems before watering again.

  • Taller plants may require staking. Add the stakes at planting time and use at least two stakes.

  • Whippy plants—those with a tall, single central shoot—will often benefit from having this central shoot trimmed by a few centimetres, as this will encourage side branching and bushiness.

Caring for a camellia

Feed the camellia annually with a quality controlled-release fertiliser that’s balanced for acid-loving plants. Mulch well to help keep moisture levels stable and to add nutrition to the soil. Before mulching, side-dress with well-composted cow manure. For younger plants, use around one-third to half a bag per plant. Ensure watering is adequate and appropriate during peak flowering and leaf growth periods and during hot or dry times. 

How and when to prune a camellia

Younger plants should be regularly tip pruned to encourage bushiness. The longer-term habit of density is created by this pruning while young. After flowering, lightly trim the plant to bring on a new growth flush and to further develop density.

Hedges can be pruned as required, but remember that pruning any later than spring or early summer may mean you are removing next season’s flower buds. Sasanquas can tolerate extremely heavy renovation pruning if required, so if you have an older plant that is looking lacklustre, don’t be afraid to prune it back hard.

Diseases and pests

The camellia plant experiences very few problems with diseases and pests. Aphids may infest new flower or leaf shoots, but these are easily dealt with using a pyrethrum-based spray.

Camellias propagation

Growing camellias from seeds

The sasanqua will often readily produce seed if given the opportunity, but this is not generally seen, as pruning post-flowering removes the spent flowers that would develop into seed capsules.

If you do locate some seed, it can be sown into a quality propagating mix and kept moist in a warm location. You’ll find they germinate quite readily. The resulting plants will likely have very different flower colours and forms to the parent plant.

Growing camellias from cuttings

The easiest and most reliable cuttings for the home gardener are semi-hardwood, taken in early to mid summer. Take new growth as the colour of the bark starts to change from green to brown. Dip the end into a cutting gel and then pop into a pot of propagating mix. Keep warm and moist as the shoots develop. 

If you like this then try

Rose: loves similar conditions, and the sasanquas will form a brilliant backdrop for your rose bushes.

Rhododendrons: these acid-soil lovers make great companions for camellias, as they’ll thrive in shady spots.

Liriope: tolerating sun and shade, liriope is an excellent lower-tier planting to add beneath sasanquas.

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