The Camellia is one of the most common flowering landscape plants in temperate climates. With its five-inch flowers that are produced prolifically among its glossy, dark green leaves, the camellia grows into a shrub or small tree---some varieties can grow to 20 feet tall. Over 3,000 different types of camellias exist, including many hybrid varieties. Flower color ranges from white to pink to crimson.
Native Environment and History
Camellias originated in China. A close relative of the camellia we know as an ornamental plant is the Camellia sinensis, from which both green and black tea are derived. Records indicate that tea was a common beverage as long as 2,500 years ago. However, the Camellia japonica did not appear in literature until the year 1702. The ornamental camellia was introduced to Europe between the 1600s and early 1800s---the exact date is unknown. They became popular on the U.S. East Coast in the 1800s and were introduced to California around 1850.
In 2002 Mississippi State University at Verona planted 19 different camellia cultivars in order to evaluate several factors of these plants, including their frost tolerance and the time they flowered. During January and February, the cultivar called "Professor Charles S. Sargeant" displayed the largest number of flowers. During March and April, the "April Tryst" cultivar was the heaviest producer of blooms. "Jury's Yellow" had good blooming in March and the cultivar "Turnadot" bloomed well in April. "Arctic Snow" was rated at the bottom of this experiment's evaluation for overall appearance.
If you live in USDA climate zone 7 or above (Virginia and points south), you will have success growing a camellia or two in your yard. This winter blooming plant is easy to care for and will reward you with colorful flowers when nothing else is in bloom. Plant your camellia in fall in a partly shady area that has well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Spread a thick layer (3 to 4 inches) of organic mulch to retain soil moisture and keep weeds away. You can prune your camellia in spring to keep it a manageable, attractive size. Fertilize in March and July with a balanced plant food having an N-P-K ratio of 8-8-8 or 10-10-10.
Making New Plants
Camellias produce seeds, so you can attempt to grow a new plant from seed if you want. However, because many varieties are hybrids, they will not reproduce "true to type" and you could end up with a flower that looks very little like your original plant. Harvest seeds in fall and soak them for 12 hours before you plant them. Plant them in small nursery pots with drainage holes using standard potting soil. Keep the soil moist and give your pots filtered sun. You can begin new camellia plants from cuttings or also by air layering, which will result in a plant that is identical to its parent. Grafting is also done commercially---if you're an experienced gardener, this method might be the one you choose.
Forcing Early Blooming
You can encourage your camellia to produce the maximum number of flowers possible, and force early blooming, if you treat flower buds with gibberellic acid starting in the middle of August and continuing until around September 15. This practice is labor intensive: you must treat every flower bud individually with the acid. Remove the vegetative buds, which are small and pointed, that occur next to flower buds, which are plump and rosy colored. Combine 1/10 ounce of gibberellic acid with 5 ounces of water and then drop one drop of the acid at each point where you removed a vegetative bud.