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Camellias made easy

Few shrubs are more rewarding to home gardeners than the camellia, with its glossy, evergreen foliage and delicate flowers that bloom over a long period

The most rewarding of all winter-flowering shrubs.

The most rewarding of all winter-flowering shrubs.

In South Africa, interest in camellias has been less noticeable than in other Western countries. This is partly because South African gardeners have not had ready access to the newer hybrids developed in the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. However, in recent years growers have introduced some new cultivars and species from overseas.

There are more than ninety recog­nised species of camellia, all of which originated in eastern Asia, and a large number of these are now available to gardeners throughout the world. From these species, varieties and hybrids number in their thousands.

There are camellias to suit almost any purpose; they can be grown in shrubberies, as hedges or specimen plants, container plants, bonsai speci­mens, and background plants.

This plant produces blooms during the winter, when flowers are relatively scarce in the garden. Flower colours range from white through bright pink to dark red, with striped and variegated patterns; some have white petals with coloured edges and others have coloured petals with white edges.

The form of the camellia flower covers a wide range of types from single to semi‑double, and peony to full formal. The flowers range in size from the often spectacular Camellia reticulata hybrids, which may be 18 cm across, to delicate blooms measuring no more than 1 cm in diameter.

The most commonly grown camel­lias in South African gardens are the Camellia.iaponica, Camellia sasanqua and Camellia x williamsii species. A number of cultivars of Camellia reticulata are now ob­tainable in South Africa, and more should be available in the near future.

Camellia japonica is the species which introduced the camellia to the western world in the 18th century. The plant became popular during Victorian times, spreading throughout Europe, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Camellia japonica is thought to have originated in Japan, but the first varieties to be seen in other countries were imported from China.

Camellia sasanqua is another Japanese camellia, the first plants having arrived in Europe in the late 19th century. It blooms in autumn, producing small flowers in such profusion that the leaves are often obscured. The species is quite easy to grow, and tolerates poorer soil conditions than most other camellias. It comes in a variety of shapes: pyramidal, bushy, weeping, miniature (suitable for bonsai), or pen­dulous (suitable for espalier).

Camellia reticulata is a fairly recent addition to the range of camellias avail­able to the home gardener. It was not until 1947 that it was discovered that many garden forms of the plant had existed in China for centuries. A number of varieties have been used to produce hundreds of popular hybrids.

Camellia x williamsii is a hybrid between Camellia japonica and a Chinese species, Camellia saluenensis. It is a very popular camellia, with magenta coloured flowers and small leaves. Camellia x williamsii does well in cold climates — severe frosts actually encourage further flowering.


The Camellia plant is a semi-shade loving plant and needs to be protected from the sun in all areas where there is low humidity. Do not plant close to walls where there is excessive heat reflection. In warm to hot climates, planting Camellias on the east side of a metal fence where the afternoon sun sets on the opposite side will cause the foliage to burn, dry out and the end result, possible death. When planting under large trees do not plant too close to the trunk, or this will cause the plant to become weak and die through lack of moisture. Heavy roots growing near the surface of the soil cause too much interference.

Sandy type soil structure is the worst medium for growing these plants in, as the soil will not retain the moisture or fertiliser. The nutrients leach out very quickly. In warmer climates Camellias need good rich well drained soil, with a lot of peat type compost dug into the ground and a good thickThe photo on the left shows what can happen to Camellias when planted in poor conditions.

Camellias must have a slightly acidic soil condition 
(pH 5-6), good drainage and the roots must be cool and moist. Quite often Camellias are killed by over-watering or bad drainage. Where the soil is heavy, dig in gypsum (500g per square metre) to help break up the clay. 
Where there is excess water moving across the surface area of the soil this can be controlled by planting above ground level and retaining with timber, stone or brick walling. Another method is to make a mound and plant on top. When planting Camellias in the ground, the soil should have large quantities of garden compost and well-rotted animal manure worked in. 
Remember that manure that is too fresh will burn the roots.


Many camel­lias adapt well to growing in large containers on balconies and verandahs.


Stand the containers off the ground on bricks or pot legs and this will allow the water to drain away from the soil. I can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure that the Camellia plants do not become under or over watered especially in container grown plants. 
A self-watering pot is a good way to grow camellias in pots to ensure that the plants are supplied with the correct amount of water all year round. These pots can be connected to an automatic or manual drip watering system. 
Empty the water out of the bottom storage area once a month and leave for several days before refilling. This will help to prevent algae and mosquitoes breeding in the water. It will also let the roots that are growing through the drainage plate die. If the roots are left to penetrate through and grow they will fill the area below and take up vital water storage room.

Hanging Baskets

Did you know some varieties of Camellias can be grown in hanging baskets?
You will need to select smaller growing varieties with soft hanging foliage. The branches can be helped to hang furthermore by adding small lead fishing sinkers weights onto the ends of each stem while you are training and pruning your plant into shape.

Potting Mix

Most Nurseries have a special potting mixture ready for planting Camellias in tubs or containers. 
These plants should not be planted too deeply and the soil should be lightly firmed down and well watered after planting. The average gardener tends to pack the soil too loosely around the plant and later on the roots are exposed after the soil has settled down.


Camellias should be kept moist but never waterlogged! Over-watering can be just as harmful as under-watering so caution is always advised. The amount of water required is very much dependant upon your local weather conditions and so varies from region to region. Water well and water deeply during the summer months to help promote healthy new growth, remember — once camellias has established themselves they are quite drought hardy! Potted camellias will require less water than those in the garden, try to make certain potted plants aren’t left standing in a bowl of water.

Feeding is ideally done each spring, often just as the camellia has finished flowering and new growth has started to appear. A controlled release fertiliser containing essential nutrients and trace elements is ideal for camellias. The amount of fertiliser required will depend entirely upon the size and age of the camellia and/or the pot it’s in. Always follow the directions carefully and use the dosage rate recommended on the container. When feeding the fertiliser should be spread at the edge of the pot for potted plants and along the drip zone for plants in a garden, never place fertiliser near the trunk of the plant. Lastly remember it’s always better to under-feed than to over-feed! During summer an additional light coating of animal manure and mulch can also be applied at the base of camellias in a garden bed. This will help to keep the root system cool and prevent warm winds from drying out the soil. Never apply lime or mushroom compost!

Camellias do not need a great deal of pruning. However, the appearance of mature plants may be improved by removing weak or dead wood. Pruning is best done at the end of winter, after the camellia has finished flowering and before new growth has begun to appear. If spring has arrived and your camellia is still flowering you may have to sacrifice some end of season blooms in preference for pruning before the new growth period begins.


Camellias are considered very pest and disease resistant, the majority of plants will never experience any problems with disease whatsoever, occasionally though pests may become a nuisance. The pests that most commonly affect camellias are the leaf suckers such as scale, aphids and mites which draw nutrients out of foliage, new growth and flower buds. Use a good insecticide to put a swift end to any troublesome pests on your camellias. Please be sure to follow the directions on the bottle, including the safety directions, before spraying your plants. A stronger white oil based spray may be required for really bad scale or mite problems. Always remember to exercise caution before using any insecticides and be sure to identify the pest first before spraying.