Camellias are highly attractive shrubs, according to Clemson University, that are desirable for their evergreen foliage and huge, fragrant flowers. They range widely in size, depending on the species and cultivar, from a small shrub to a medium-sized tree. Camellias are excellent specimen plants, although they do have specific care needs and are not a good choice for the home gardener who would like an easy-care plant.
There are several species of camellia, with over 2,000 cultivars, according to Clemson University. Common Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) cultivars are the most popularly grown in America. These shrubs are often called "japonicas". C. oleifera is commonly called the "tea-oil" camellia. C. reticulata has the largest flowers but is very susceptible to cold temperatures. For that reason, it is often crossed with other species, resulting in a hardy camellia with large flowers. C. sasanqua is one of the faster growing types of camellias, most of which grow quite slowly.
Camellias were cultivated for hundreds of years in the Orient before being brought to Europe in the 17th century. These showy plants, which are native to southeast Asia, were an instant hit, and their popularity quickly spread to America, where they were introduced in the 18th century. The Civil War and its aftermath saw a decline in the cultivation of these plants, but they regained their popularity in the 20th century. In 1945, the American Camellia Society was founded to protect, promote and educate about these plants.
Size and Appearance
Camellias range widely in size, from one-foot tall, low-growing shrubs to 20-foot trees. The tallest are the Camellia oleifera and japonica, which can reach heights of over 20 feet. Camellias of that size, however, are very old, as they are slow-growing plants. In fact, it takes about a hundred years for a camellia to grow 20 feet tall, according to Clemson University. Camellias have broad, flat, dark-green leaves and flowers ranging in color from creamy white to hot pink. The flowers can be small--about 1 to 2 inches in diameter--or 5 or more inches.
Camellias have shallow roots and need very well-draining, rich soil in order to thrive. A thick (2- to 3-inch) layer of mulch will help stifle weed growth and retain moisture in the soil without overly saturating it. Too much water in the soil can lead to root rot. Still, the shallow roots do not compete well for moisture, so they need to be watered on a regular basis until they are well-established. Just make sure not to place camellias near large trees or other plants that will use up the moisture in the soil, and do not plant them where standing water develops or flooding occurs. Camellias also prefer some protection from the hot afternoon sun and from winds.
Bud drop is common in camellias and can be due to a number of reasons, including under-watering, very hot and dry conditions, or the simple fact that there are more buds on the plant than the shrub can handle. Fungal diseases can cause the buds to rot and the leaves to develop spots or shrivel up. Take care not to let standing water sit on the leaves of the plant, and place the camellia where air can circulate around it. Common insect pests such as scale and aphids can also bother camellias. Rinse them off with a strong stream of water, or in severe cases, treat the shrub with an insecticide.