Everything You Need to Know About Camellias

Camellia japonica 'Silver Waves'

Camellia japonica ‘Silver Waves’

In the Valley, camellias do best in a partial sun/light shade exposure. One of the best places in the world to learn about the light and shade requirements of the camellia is at an arboretum right in our own back yard. Descanso Gardens, in La Canada, has one of the outstanding collections of camellias found anywhere on the globe. February and March are the months in which the Descanso camellias are at their most glorious. When you look at the camellias there, you will appreciate their specimen qualities. Left to grow to their full height and minimally pruned, arboretum camellias have a treelike quality that is seldom seen in neighborhood landscapes. Here’s a thought to conserve water: Turn your back yard into a camellia forest.
John Dudas of Sherman Oaks e-mailed some concerns about camellia pruning. Camellias, like other flowering shrubs, should be pruned after blooming is finished – which means early spring for the camellias presently in bloom. Dudas wonders how far back he can prune his plants. You can generally take off one third of a shrub’s branches without deleterious effects. Thus, reducing the height of a 12-foot camellia by 4 feet would not be excessive. Such reduction should only be done, however, if there is adequate light at the plant’s new height of 8 feet. If the camellia is excessively shaded by other plants, it could easily go into a funk and refuse to grow after being heavily pruned.
With their plush, multilayered flowers of white, pink or red, camellias could easily be mistaken for winter roses. There is a major difference between camellias and roses, however, and that is in the relatively little maintenance that camellias require.
I have observed camellias 8 or 10 feet tall, covered with flowers from top to bottom, that have never been fertilized and are watered only occasionally with a hose. I am acquainted with a camellia shrub that has lived in a state of benign neglect for more than two decades and yet, come February, each flower emerges without blemish, as though it were crafted of porcelain or silk.
Because of their preference for shade and acid soil, camellias are often grouped with azaleas and hydrangeas. But camellias deserve to stand alone, both in terms of their care and for the weight they carry as landscaping subjects.
Where watering is concerned, established camellias could almost be described as drought tolerant. Properly mulched, established camellias should not need to be watered, even during the summer, more than twice a month. Newly planted camellias, on the other hand, will require weekly deep soaking during their first year or two in the garden.
Camellia diseases are quite common and are invariably traced to excessive watering, poor air circulation, or heavy soil. Overhead sprinklers, in depositing water on leaf, stem, bud, and flower surfaces, can only encourage the development of fungi. Petal blight, caused by the Sclerotinia fungus, appears as brown spots on flower petals. When the infected petals drop to the ground, the fungus spores lie dormant until the following year when, once again they will blight the flowers. To control this blight, pick diseased flowers off the plant before they fall. Alternatively, a fungicide applied to the soil just prior to bloom will prevent germination of fungal spores.
The most frustrating phenomenon to be seen on certain camellias is not the result of a disease but of a physiological disorder. This condition, known as bud drop, is characterized by the falling of unopened or partially opened flower buds. Several conditions, some of them at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, have been implicated in the occurrence of bud drop: dry soil, overly wet soil, freezing winter temperatures, excessively warm winter temperatures and inadequate light exposure.
The heavy rain we experienced in the last week is good for the soil but not good for planting projects. The salts contained in our municipal water, when accumulated in the soil as a result of irrigation, are harmful to plants; a good rain will leach or drain these salts past the important feeder roots of plants. These roots, located in the top few inches of soil, take up most of a plant’s water and minerals.
Hold off on planting until the soil is no longer rain-saturated. At present, digging will cause soil compaction, which causes a physical barrier to root growth and a deprivation of oxygen to the root zone as well. Newly planted flowers, shrubs and trees all depend on healthy roots to establish themselves in the garden.

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