Camellia bushes are large shrubs (or small trees) that grow best in regions with cool, mild winters. The glossy, deep green leaves and ornamental flowers make them prized, slow-growing plants for gardens. Three camellia species are particularly common: Japanese camellia, sasanqua, and tea. All camellia plants have origins in Asia, although hundreds of modern hybrids have been created by botanists.
Camellia bushes are known scientifically by the same name, Camellia, and are members of the tea family, Theaceae. Depending on which taxonomist source you consult, between 80 to 280 different species of camellia exist, including the popular ornamental sasanqua (Camellia sasanqua), Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) and the economically important tea (Camellia sinensis).
All camellia plants are native to Asia, from northern India eastward into China and southward into the mountains of Southeast Asia.
Today, many hybrid crosses have been performed among various camellia species to create lovely flowering shrubs. Thus, many plants encountered in gardens and plant nurseries today have been created by man, although derived from Asian plants.
In general, a camellia is a large, slow-growing shrub with evergreen foliage that is dark glossy green. The leaf is a tapered oval, usually with tiny teeth on the leaf edges. The bark is smooth in texture and colored a light tan, sometimes a grayish beige.
Flowering occurs in either fall, winter or spring. The round flower buds appear by late summer and open in the appropriate season as genetically determined by species. The flowers are large and showy, ranging in color from white to pink, red and violet, and can be striped or spotted with these colors. The flower petals number at least eight, but modern hybrids often have blossoms that are double in form, having excess rows of petals to create a full, rose-like flower.
Camellias are forest plants, growing best in moist, acidic soils that are well-draining and rich in organic matter. They look their best protected from direct sunlight in the heat of the day; usually they receive shade from the branches of pines or hardwood trees sprawling above them.
Camellias need a cool dormancy in winter; winters that are too cold will kill foliage, flower buds and entire plants. In general, they are best grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9, where winters are cool but mild and summers neither cool nor hot.
Camellia bushes are admired as ornamental plants in gardens throughout the temperate climate regions of the world. Their flowers are revered since they typically open in the doldrums of fall and winter. The evergreen broadleaf foliage is attractive, too, and can act as a tall hedge, screen or accent plant in a garden border or in a building foundation bed.
One species, tea (Camellia sinensis), is economically important as its new, tender foliage is harvested and processed to make hot and cold beverages. Although a cash crop, tea is an attractive ornamental shrub, with lustrous dark green leaves and pretty white flowers in autumn.