Camellia japonica is one of the most popular shrubs in New Zealand. They are compact, evergreen and free flowering over a long period. Their flowers and foliage are prized for floral art. A favourite feature specimen for a lawn planting.
They are beautiful as a background for border gardens; the shrubbery; shrub and tree garden or woodland setting and they make a wonderful hedge or screen. Camellia japonicas are often trained into standards, topiaries and espalier well against fences and walls. In colder and marginal climates, this is the best way to protect their delicate Winter flowers from frost damage. Camellias thrive in containers and smaller forms make brilliant Bonsai.
Camellia japonica was named for its association with Japan where it has been an integral part of the culture since at least 300 B.C. Many classic Japanese gardens utilize Camellia japonica in a variety of clever and effective ways that often create the background, and sometimes even the backbone structure of their gardens.
Botanical historians believe this species actually originated in the subtropical mountain forests of China, the native homeland of many of the 250 wild Camellia species. The original wild Camellia japonica species is an open tree to 15m. (5Oft.) but modern hybrids are shorter and much improved, usually 6-9m/20-30ft or less. Some are distinctively dwarf and highly compact groundcovers. Others create elliptical, egg-shaped, or nearly round small, medium or large shrubs; while others can be more spreading into small trees.
Camellia japonica arrived in the west by a rather deceptive mistake. Early European explorers of Asia overlooked it for a near relative, the widely cultivated Camellia sinensis, whose leaves produce tea. Tea reached Europe in the 17th Century and became an immediate favourite with society.
Realizing the commercial potential of this fashionable drink, the British East India Company tried to export Camellia sinensis, Tea plants, by bribing Chinese officials. But the clever Chinese officials, realizing how clueless these businessmen were, outsmarted them by substituting the more decorative Camellia japonica. When the first plants reached England in the early 18th Century, the businessmen were soon disappointed with their mistake.
But British Nurserymen were delighted by the introduction of these most handsome shrubs with their lovely flowers. Especially since the decorative and evergreen shrubs bloomed during the cooler months when colour was so scarce and with flowers which resembled their beloved Roses! That ultimately resulted in its common name: the ‘Rose of Winter’. The shrubs flourished there and became an instant hit with Collectors and Plant Breeders. Thanks to their dedication and devotion to those early Camellia transplants, today there are over 2,000 hybrids and at least 20,000 hybrid cultivars of Camellia japonica!
Camellia japonica in its original form was a five-petaled 5-8cm/2-3inch usually red, pink or occasionally white flower. These are still often seen in Chinese and some Japanese Gardens. Flowers of today’s hybrid cultivars include all colour shadings of mauve with shadings of near-blue; red to nearly black/burgundy; every conceivable shading of pink; salmon to nearly orange; soft yellow and cream to purest white.
There are many spotted, stripped and variegated forms and lovely pastels or lightly blushed blooms. Some have beautiful picotee edging like hybrid ‘Margaret Davis’ with pure white softly ruffled petals each with a delicate red edge. Hybrid ‘Lady Loch’ is a beautiful ruffled double form in soft salmon pink with a pure white edging. A few cultivars like ‘Scentuous’ and ‘High Fragrance’ have a sweet perfume. Some Winter-flowering cultivars have a sweet honey-musk fragrance and another very late-flowering group smell softly of Wintergreen.
Flower forms have come a long way since the original five-petaled single bloom found wild in China, Korea and Japan. Today’s hybrid cultivars still include single blooms but much enlarged and improved, sometimes almost resembling small Hibiscus or Hollyhock flowers. Other very hardy and robust forms are semi-double or informal, loose and open flowers. ‘The Czar’ is a classic of this type featuring wide-open semi double deep pink-red blooms surrounding a large cluster of bright erect central stamens.
The classic double Camellia japonica hybrids often appear like Roses, sometimes Gardenias or Tuberous Begonia blooms. Some doubles, often called ‘Anemone’ forms more closely resemble small Peonies; some like pretty ‘Debbie’ feature semi double bluish pink petals surrounding a very doubly ruffled centre; some are nearly round balls of petals.
Another stunning group of double flowering hybrids have such symmetrical petal forms that they are known as ‘Water Lily’ forms like the very classic ‘E G Waterhouse’ and its many gorgeous cultivars. Others like pretty ‘Tamia’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Ballet Girl’ produce masses of small double blooms on impressive small trees.
Camellia japonicas are easily grown, hardy and very long-lived. This is provided they are placed in a position of their liking. As Camellias are shrubs of subtropical mountain forests and open woodland clearings it is important to try and reproduce these conditions.
Choose a sheltered site that is protected from arid, drying heat and scorching, strong sunshine; hail, pelting rain and severe winds; and also severe freezing or heavy frosts. This is especially important through the cooler months as a gentle climate will help protect the beautiful and somewhat delicate blooms from damage caused by extremes.
Today’s many hybrid cultivars have been bred to flower in a variety of conditions. And for many months, potentially from Autumn to nearly Summer. Thus there are hardy Camellias that successfully survive as far north as Zone 5-6 which means they can be grown in sheltered corners as far north as Ontario, Canada. They are favourites throughout all the world’s milder coastal and temperate zones throughout the subtropical regions and into the tropical highlands and mountainous regions with cooler climates. Camellia is the State flower of Alabama and is a Southern United States classic. They are indispensible plantings in all parts of New Zealand gardens and the cool and damper regions of Australia and South Africa as well as much of the milder regions of the United Kingdom and Europe. And of course, they are grown to perfection throughout much of Asia, China, Korea and Japan.
Because Camellia japonica is native to mountain forests and woodlands, often growing on volcanic land, they require a rather special type of soil which should be fluffy, well draining and slightly acid. A mix of equal parts good garden soil, peat, cow manure and sand at a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is ideal. In areas where the land is naturally somewhat ‘sweet’ and limy with a somewhat higher pH, Camellia japonica will often establish well beneath the dappled shade or sunnier side of a canopy of Conifers or other related evergreen species or sometimes even beneath established Oak groves and plantations which produce acid tannins from their decaying foliage that keeps the surrounding soil pH low. Peat is naturally acidic and can also be added in generous quantities to lower soil pH.
Feed Camellias with an acid-based Commercial Fertiliser especially made for Azaleas, Camellias, Daphne and Rhododendrons. Alternatively, create an appropriate ‘acid’ fertiliser by mixing one standard size bucket of a balanced General Garden Fertilizer (such as 10-10-10 or 20-20-20 or similar ratio) with one cup Flowers of Sulphur, well mixed together while dry. Such a dried mix will store well for years provided it remains very dry.
For best results start feeding in Spring as soon as flowering has finished. This will boost and strengthen the flush of new Spring growth. On younger shrubs where maximum new growth is desirable; this basic acid fertilizer mix can be boosted by adding one cup Nitrogen (from a commercial Slow Release Fertiliser or Ammonia Nitrate or even a standard Lawn fertilizer) to one bucket of the Acid Camellia Fertiliser. Alternatively, mix one cup of the Acid Camellia Fertiliser with one cup Blood and Bone then add and thoroughly mix this into one standard bucket of mature compost or (better still) one bucket of well-aged manure. Spread immediately from near, but not touching, the trunk outward to the drip-line, just barely covering the ground with this enriched fertilised mulch. Always apply any chemical fertiliser over thoroughly wet soil and water in immediately.
Feed again with the basic acid Camellia Fertiliser mix just after the Summer Solstice has passed. This is when new season growth will begin to finish and harden off and new flower buds will begin to develop at the branching tips. Then feed again lightly into Autumn/ Early Winter before buds begin to open.
Camellia Connoisseurs and Exhibition Growers further boost blooming by adding a little extra Phosphorous (Super Phosphate or powdered Phosphate Rock) and Potassium (Sulphate of Potash or untreated Wood Ashes) with the Summer Solstice and Autumn/Winter feedings. The extra Phosphorous and Potassium promote bud and flower development, depth of colour and quality of bloom.
Feed only lightly if at all when in the shrubs are in bloom as Camellia flowers are easily burnt by excessive applications of any chemical fertiliser salts.
Camellia japonica shrubs and trees are most easily planted during the cooler and damper months of the year from whenever rains consistently return in the Autumn through the Early Spring. This is especially important when shifting or transplanting an established shrub. They can be successfully planted from shrubs already well established in containers at almost any time of the year provided that they can be consistently and very regularly watered, especially during dry and warm weather, until they become well established.
When planting a Camellia first dig a large planting hole which is perhaps twice as wide across as the root ball and at least half as deep. After carefully removing the plant from its container, situate it in the middle of the planting hole so that it remains at the same level as it grew in the container. In drier locations it can be planted just a tiny bit deeper. But it is dangerous to plant Camellias too deeply or they are liable to develop collar rot and suddenly die. Back-fill the planting hole with soil enriched with well aged manure and/or mature compost mixed with peat. Water in very thoroughly at planting and maintain an even supply of moisture to the shrub from then onward until it is obviously well established.
Stake newly planted Camellias at the time of planting. This is especially important with larger specimens and whenever planting into any position that could ever experience persistent or strong winds. Emerging roots are very fine and somewhat brittle until they become established. If the shrub ever rocks back and forth as it could in windy weather, these new tender roots can easily break or become damaged by winds. This invites fungal infections which could internally spread resulting in the ultimate collapse of the Camellia.
Small healthy Camellia plants establish very quickly. These sometimes need less care and maintenance than when shifting or transplanting larger shrubs. The disadvantage is that they take several years of growth to catch up to larger transplanted Camellias. But often after that, they outgrow larger shrubs which take longer to re-establish their new root zone. But a well-grown and successfully transplanted Camellia shrub will quickly adapt to its new home and reward for many years to come.
When purchasing container-grown Camellias, avoid root bound stock. If many roots are showing through the bottom drainage holes the plant may be pot bound. Such plants will need to have their roots either cut loose or ‘teased’ out before transplanting. Otherwise a root-bound Camellia can almost tie its roots into knots which can stunt its future growth and ultimate performance.
A classic way of shifting larger Camellia shrubs is to purchase those that have been freshly dug from the field, then bagged or burlapped and tied. This is done very easily over the Late Autumn and Winter months while the shrubs are dormant. As long as the shrubs have been properly cared for and regularly watered and appear strong and healthy with no signs of wilting or yellowing of foliage, they will transplant very easily and should establish quite quickly. It is of critical importance that these larger shrubs are well staked at planting as their taller size makes them very vulnerable to root damage as they rock in the Winter and Spring weather.
Because Camellias originate in climates with near constant high humidity, moisture and rainfall, it is essential to water regularly with a deep soaking especially when freshly transplanted and young. This is very important especially in the first year or two after planting. But even when well established if a Camellia ever deeply dries out especially in Late Summer onward through the drier Autumn months, this can cause young buds to prematurely drop.
Providing generous mulching from near, but not contacting, the trunk outward to at least the drip line will maximize growth and bloom, especially in young trees. This also maintains a much more even supply of moisture for the Camellia and reduces the need for extra watering. Best mulches include: mature compost (but not mushroom composts that contain Lime!); well-aged manure; granulated bark; mulched landscape chip, especially that coming from acidic coniferous species or Oaks; Pine needles; crushed Oak leaves; dried grass clippings; well-washed salt-free seaweed, and most other organic materials.
Proper mulching is also important to promoting the best plant health. Camellias develop a strong anchoring root system which spreads deeply into the ground. From those roots many fine, small feeder roots grow upwards to feed just below the soil surface. These are very vulnerable to drying out. They can also be chemically burnt with excessive fertilising. Mulching greatly helps to protect these feeding roots and equalises the even distribution of fertiliser as if sinks into the soil to feed the roots below.
Many Gardeners lightly prune their shrubs as they pick flowers for decoration.
Otherwise, pruning usually takes place directly after flowering in Early Spring before new growth begins. This allows for the best regrowth which should be very bushy and prolific. Pruning can continue through to Early Summer without jeopardizing too much new growth. But Mid/Late Summer, Autumn and even pruning into the Winter months will result in loss of that seasons’ growth and flowering for the following season.
Camellia japonica when well situated is almost as hardy as Privet. They can be severely pruned and will usually still bounce back. Old shrubs are often given an entirely new lease on life with a severe pruning. For best flowering and shape, Camellias should be systematically pruned every year. This often starts when flowers are being picked and continues until the flush of new growth begins in Spring. All diseased, misshapen, thin and weak growth is removed. Top and side growth is sometimes lightly trimmed back to force additional side shoots with extra blooms. When correctly and successfully pruned, the Camellia should have enough open space internally for a bird to easily fly through it. Dense foliage will be most productive for a few years, but then it needs to be thinned in order to remain healthy and productive.
A well grown Camellia japonica is truly a beauty to behold. They can literally live for centuries, producing many thousands of exquisite blooms in their lifetime. These are flowering shrubs of ancient, timeless beauty that deserve a place in almost every garden and landscape.