Almost all the Camellias in our gardens are natives to tropical and subtropical Asia, mostly China and Japan, where they have been grown since the 9th Century. These are mostly shady or partially shaded forest, mounainous and woodland native species.
They would be among the finest ornamental flowering shrubs and small trees for partially shaded sites to sunny positions that always remain somewhat moist. They perform best in somewhat temperate microclimates that are neither overly dry and hot nor freezing cold.
While there are about 100 identifiable species, almost all the ones we recognize today come from Camellia Japonica, C. Reticulata, C. Sasanqua and crosses with the much smaller flowering wild C. Saluenensis. It has been the remarkably talented Chinese and Japanese Gardeners who over many centuries have coaxed these remarkable evergreen shrubs and small trees to perform as brilliantly as they do today. Camellia japonica is the classic Camellia. It is really unrivaled although the other species might beg to differ. This is a large shrub or small tree 7m/ 23+ft but often much smaller. C. japonica has glossy, dark green, ovalish leaves.
Flowers are 3 to 5 inches (8 - 13cm) across with often wavy, rounded petals that are thick and waxy in shades from white and soft yellow through deepest reds and all shades of salmon, pinks and combinations thereof. Most are unscented but a few carry a distinct if light perfume, often a sweet honey scent with overtones of Wintergreen. The flower forms are single, semi, double, fully double, formal, informal, ruffled, smooth, rounded and pointed-petaled, Water Lily forms, Anemone forms, Pompons, huge blousy affairs, tight perfectly symmetrical configurations, tiniest miniatures upwards to blooms larger than a Grapefruit.
Camellia japonica makes an excellent specimen plant or foundation planting. They are lovely when planted as screens, shelter belts and hedges especially to perennial borders and gardens. There the deep, green glossy foliage ornamented with such exquisite blooms prove indeed eye-catching. And even when out of flower this sort of formal background enhances almost any planting. They prune and trim easily making them good for topiary work and sculptured features within the garden or just a simple hedge. And because most their growth happens pretty much all at once after flowering, which is usually Mid/Late Autumn and Winter into Spring, one comprehensive pruning and an occasional trim is all they will need. The blooms and foliage are excellent for floral art work. While each bloom lasts no longer than a week, even when left on the plant, each mature branch often produces a number of buds clustered at the tip with several more buds spread along the stem. These open one after another over a long period. Classic varieties like Lady Loch and Margaret Davis often are the first to flower in the Autumn and the last to finish in the Spring.
The foliage of most Camellias on its own is absolutley classic and very long-lasting. It can even be easily dried or painted. The tannin within each leaf that makes it so rigid and glossy, also preserves the leaf. It also gives it flavour. From the tender young tips of a hardy and shrubby Asian Camellia species the world gets all its tea. In particular drinking several cups daily of the herbal and medicinal qualities provided by Green Tea are said to aid a variety of complaints. The antoxidants help reduce the risk of Cancer and Heart Disease. Its antioxidant known as polyphenols fight free radicals which cause Aging so it helps improve Skin Tone, Reducing Wrinkles and promotes Longevity. It speeds metabolism burning up an averge of 70 calories a day which translates into 7 pounds lost in one year which is a considerable Weight Loss, just for drinking Green Tea! So it is an excellent way to correct problems with Obesity.
Camellia Green Tea has been correlated with preventing and reducing the risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Its high fluoride content promotes Healthy Bones and Teeth thus lowering Tooth Decay and Osteoporosis. It helps boost lipid and glucose metabolism which in turn lowers Cholesterol and balances blood sugar so helps ward off Diabetes. Its antioxidants help prevent brain cell damage so slows the advance of Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease as well as most Liver Diseases and Disorders plus reduces High Blood Pressure. Because of its natural antibacterial qualities it helps eliminating harmful bacteria that result in Food Poisoning. The polyphenols and polysaccharides in Green Tea help lower Blood Sugar Levels in the Blood and these same medicinal properties and flavenoids increase Immunity against Infections. These properties combined with its high Vitamin C content helps Prevent Colds and Flu, Ear Infections and even Herpes.
Theophylline in Green Tea relaxes muscles around the bronchial tubes which will reduce the severity of Asthma. The Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG) found in Green Tea helps relieve Allergies and in Japanese research EGCG in Green Tea was discovered to stop HIV from binding with healthy immune cells thus it can actually help stop the spread of the HIV virus. And the L-theanine amino acids in Green Tea help relieve anxiety and stress. When you drink enough Green tea, who needs the Doctor and it is a lovely shrub to grow in the garden, too! Judging from first hand experience living in Asia, where Green Tea is consumed at almost every meal and inbetween, I would think all of these claims are probably true!
Of the many thousand named varieties, here are a few Camellia japonica of exceptional merit: Camellia japonica var.Cameo is exactly that: one of the best all-round performers. It is a compact, medium sized very dense shrub with medium green foliage and a most prolific mid and late season flowering shrub. Blooms are semi double to double with wavy margins in a lovely bright Cameo pink. Debutante with its exquisite fluffy double pink tinged white blossoms is divine; Ave Mariais too, with silvery pink formal double blooms, great for cutting; Carters Sunburst has giant peony double blooms of pale pink striped deeper pink; Onetia Holland is one of the best whites with large, loose peony flowers.
Lady Loch is a fully double somewhat wavy-petalled almost Anemone centred medium sized bloom of exceptional quality which will withstand the weather; its soft salmon pink petals have a lovely picotee white edge and it flowers from the very first days to almost the very last days of Camellia flowering season on quite a large bush. Margaret Davis is a pristene white flower in a similar perhaps somewhat more ruffled form with a cherry red picotee edge.
Camellia reticulata species are large shrubs or small, arching trees to 7 m/23+ft. Leaves are dull green, elliptical, toothed and half as wide as they are long and often almost twice the size of Camellia japonica. Flowers are very large, often ruffled and showy, double or semi-double but sometimes single or in a loose Anemone form usually 4 - 6 inches across but can be up to 24 cm./9.6 inches. Usually these are found in many shades of pink from rosy pinks, medium pink, flamboyant Flamingo Pink to the very softest shell and blush pink, white and cream shades and most shades of red to nearly black-red and a variety of multi-toned hybrid cultivars.
These are tough customers able to withstand more extremes than many Camellias and their growth rates are vigorous. They make a remarkable ornamental feature shrub-tree, an amazing abour or avenue planting. They can be used most effectively as a hedge planting too as they are easily pruned. They will also survive and perform handsomely in more extreme cold, heat, dry and wet than most other species of Camellia.
Camellia reticulatas are a classic and most famous species for an arching specimen which do well over garden paths where they quickly make a flowering arbor or tunnel. In their Winter to Early Spring flowering season the ground around them in covered in blooms and petals. Meticulously tidy Gardners might find this rather unsettling, but those who treasure flowers will soon discover an avenue or path literally blanketed with their blooms is truly celebrational. Like Camellia japonica, C reticulata are quite acceptable in large containers or as feature plants.
C. reticulata variety Captain Rawes with its ruffly vivid red-pink blooms has been cultivated for centuries. This makes an impressive arching, dome-shaped small tree that can be recognised most unmistakably from a great distance and it is long-flowering, too. C. reticulata variety Buddha has magnificent rose blooms that fade to orchid on large open shrubs. While C.r.v. Cornelia is a fluffy semidouble in red marbled white. Pagoda is a perfect formal crimson double.
Sasanqua Camellias are extremely hardy, early free flowering forms. They are so different from the rest, as to be almost unrecognisable to the novice. C. sasanqua is more the 'privet' of Camellias. But in a very attractive and beneficial way. Its leaves are considerably smaller than other species; oval and simple, tapering to a point, often with small, soft marginal teeth. Leaves are often leathery and medium to dark green with red/orange casts in some varieties. This bronzing is most noticeable in new foliage and mellows to its true green colour with maturity. Some hybrid cultivars have been deliberately selected for this handsome bronzing quality.
Sasanqua Camellia shrubs can become large and open or arching very ornamental small trees. But many varieties are spreading or arching or quite dwarf making them excellent subjects for groundcovers, hanging baskets, cascades over walls, arches, trellises and arbores, and to espalier against a fence or house. Many upright varieties make spectacular small dome-shaped trees with gracefully arching branches. They are extremely hardy to both rather drier and wetter positions than most other species and easily tolerate full Summer sun positons where the soil never completely dries out.
These are remarkable fast growing plants. They would commonly put on at least 3ft/90cm in a single growing season. But when well positioned in the 'right' soil, they can easily double or triple this amount of growth. Because the growth is often willowy and arching especially in the larger growing varieties, they make a wonderful fast-growing arbour, hedge, screen and the flexible stems are easily woven into truly artistic topiary which soon grow into beautifully braided trunks. This variety is also the best choice in windy sites and sheltered coastal positions, although no Camellias respond well to salty ocean spray.
Flowers are smaller, often rather informal and generally more open than in other Camellias. The big bonus here is their perfume. Most of the C. sasanqua varieties have at least a pleasant honey-musk fragrance while the finest varieties are sweetly fragrance from some considerable distance away. Wherever they grow well, they soon become an most identifable and welcome fragrance. There are a wide variety of single, semi-double and fully double forms. Many of the double varieties tend to be loose, informal doubles, but very lovely and there are a few highly symmetrically-flowered cultivars.
These appear in all the traditional Camellia colours. The big difference with Camellia sasangqua is that it starts to flower in the Autumn, sometimes even in Late Summer. It is one of those tradional Chinese and Japanese garden shrubs that are considered seasonal 'heralds'. Camellia sasanqua is the herald of True Autumn, not usually the first days of the season, but the first true Autumn days that herald sustained cooler damper conditions. Some varieties can continue flowering throughout Autumn and Winter right into Spring until the weather once again truly begins to warm. Thus the day that the late Sasanqua varieties drop their final petals heralds the beginning of true Spring weather.
C. sasanqua var. Ocean Springs has a purely lovely simple single white-petaled bloom in the centre tinged with a soft lavender purple blush on the outer petals; C.s.v.Tanya is a deep rose with mahogany new growth that makes an excellent ground cover; C.s.v.Showa--no-Sakae is a double soft pink flowering very early and trainable into almost any form. C sasanqua var. Plantation Pink has single bright pink blooms on vigorous upright plants that prune and train well into many shapes. And Yuletide is a lovely compact shrub with Christmas red single blooms with bright very prominent yellow stamens on Christmas green foliage.
Some of the newer releases in the 'snow' series have single, semi double and loose double medium-sized flowers in pearly white. These are amongst the most prolific bloomers from Early/Mid Autumn right through the Winter months. The loosely formed flowers with softly curved or ruffled often lobed at the tip petals are somewhat fragile which means there is a constant flutter of soft white 'snow' falliing around them throughout their long flowering season. And they are also very durable, hardy and quick-growing, trainable and very pruneable into anything from an arbour, hedge, topiary or arching ornamnetal small tree.
Almost all Camellia species were originally native to decayed volcanic lands, thus they prefer loose, fertile, acid soils with a pH from about pH 5.5- 7.0. They will tolerate slightly higher pH readings but often begin to suffer from chlorosis (yellowing) as their roots are unable to draw up enough nutrients in 'sweet' soils. This higher pH often weakens them making them easy prey to borer or other fungal infections. When Camellias are grown in a reasonable position they are amongst the most maintenance-free of all broad leafed evergreen ornamental flowering shrubs and trees.
Autumn, as soon as the weather cools and moistens, throughout Winter and into Early Spring are the best times to plant from containers or shift established plants, which move with remarkable ease, Choose a sheltered site, preferrably frost-free, especially for the larger flowering C. japonica and C. reticulata species. Because these flower mostly during the Winter, their flowers are easily burnt and ruined by heavy frost or freezing. C. sasanqua is a favourite for cooler positions esperiencing frosts and even some freezing. There are a few newly-released Northern Hemisphere cultivars that often flower very early in the Spring instead of Late Autumn. In these colder climate positions, they are best planted in a sheltered aspect under the eaves of the house, near a sheltering wall near protective shrubs or beneath taller overhead deciduous or, better still, evergreen trees or conifers.
Most conifers also prefer acid pH soils and the tannin pitch in their leaves and sap tend to naturally acidify the ground beneath them. And Camellias look fantastic when grown with Conifers as much as with deciduous plantings. In Asia Camellias are often seen planted beneath Acer japonica, the Japanese Maple and amongst Spring-flowering Azaleas and Rhododendrons. Mulching Camellias with acid conifer boughs or Pine needles soon develops a beautiful acid leaf mould which best suits their shallow roots.
Soil should be well-draining, organically rich as well as acid pH. Mixing peat, pine needles or conifer leaf mould into their planting hole is helpful. Alternatively powdered flowers of Sulfur dusted into and well working into the planting hole and occasionally over the surface will maintain the acid pH they require.
At the time of planting, stake any Camellia shrub taller than 3ft/90cm, especially if exposed to the potential of any winds at all. Camellias produce both anchoring roots which quickly spread outwards and down into the earth. From these and also from near the central crown, they also produce a vast network of fine, small, web-like roots that grow upward toward the surface where they absorb most of the food the Camellia shrubs needs. For top performance it is important that these fine 'feeder' roots are not damaged or disturbed. Avoid excessive or deep cultivation within the drip-line of the shrub or tree. Maintain an even supply of moisture within that same drip-line boundary zone. This is also where they are best fed.
The easiest way to do this is to maintain a permenant mulch at least 12-inches 2,5-5cm or more from just off their trunk out to their drip line. Ocassionally feed into this mulch, especially Spring and Autumn. They respond all organic manures and mulches other than lime-rich mushroom compost as well as most general garden fertilisers. There are also specially prepared chemical fertilisers made especially for Azalea, Camellia, Rhododendron and Daphne which takes the guesswork out of their feeding. Always spread any chemical fertiliser over thoroughly moist ground and then water it in immediately. Light applications are much more beneficial than one heavy feeding which could result in root burn. This could ultimately result in tip burn of new tender growth or even bud drop or flower burn.
Camellias are among the most rewarding of all garden shrubs to grow. They deserve pride-of-place in almost every warm temperate zone garden. Camellias are almost as old as the tradition of gardening itself and this is perhaps the reason that they radiate both beauty, class and a timeless elegance.