Camellias are large, shade-loving shrubs that are raised as ornamental plants throughout the world. They are prized for their large and beautiful flowers, which come in a wide variety of forms, colors and sizes. Camellias can be grown as landscape plants in areas that do not experience extended periods of cold or in greenhouses as specimen plants and can even be trained as bonsai.
Camellias originated from wild species that were then cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan for thousands of years, where the plant was revered for its beauty. In the 18th century they were imported to Europe and to the United States in the 19th century. Camellias are named after Georg Josef Kamel, a Moravian Jesuit priest and botanist working in Asia.
Camellia plants grow as evergreen shrubs, averaging 6 to 8 feet in height. Some species also grow as trees, reaching up to 60 feet. Camellias have simple, serrated leaves that are usually glossy and bright green and range from 2 to 6 inches in length. The blooms come in a variety of colors, from pure white, to cream, pink, red and even lilac. The shape of camellia flowers also varies greatly, from simple blossoms with a few petals to double-flowered hybrids with many whorls of petals. The petals of each flower falls individually when the bloom is finished.
Contrary to the belief that camellias are fussy, difficult plants to grow, they are actually fairly easy to raise, in the right conditions. Camellias grow well as landscape plants form the most southern hardiness zones in the United States, up to the lower portions of zone 6. They prefer partial shade where leaves and blossoms are protected from the sun. Because camellias have relatively shallow roots, it is best not to plant them near trees that also have shallow root systems that will compete for nutrients. Camellias thrive in moist, acidic soils with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 that are rich in organic material. Planting should be done from fall through early spring, if possible. Camellias can be propagated from cuttings or air layering.
Species and Cultivars
There are estimated to be from 80 and 280 species of Camellias known today, a large number of which are found in China. While camellias are very diverse, only a few species are raised as ornamental plants. These include Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua, and Camellia reticulata. More than 20,000 cultivars have been hybridized, most of which where created by amateur camellia growers. Cultivars are classified by blossom form. For example, cultivars that possess two or more rows of petals with conspicuous stamens are identified as a Class II semi-double. Color, size and bloom period also factor into the classification of cultivars.
The leaves of several different species of Camellia sinensis are used for making tea. The leaves are picked, cured and prepared by a variety of methods. Tea is one of the world's most popular beverages, second only to water.