By Heather Kirk-Ballard
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(03/01/19) It can be difficult to find appealing color in outdoor landscapes during the cold winter months. Here in the South, we are fortunate to have the camellia. This evergreen shrub is a native of Japan and was first introduced to the Southern United States in Charleston, South Carolina, at the end of the 18th century.
Many folks don’t realize that perhaps the most widely used camellia globally is Camellia sinensis, commonly known as the tea plant. Yes, indeed, the South loves some tea. Typically enjoyed hot in the wintertime as we enjoy the Camellia japonica for its beautiful blooms.
Since their arrival, camellias have become a staple of the Southern garden for their beautiful winter flowers. They are perhaps one of the most spectacular bloomers for late fall to early spring. Individual blooms are relatively large in size, up to 5 inches across, and come in many forms — single, semi-double, formal double, peony, anemone and rose forms. Colors are red, pink, and white and also variegated combinations of two of the three traditional colors.
The blooming opportunities seem endless. The camellia shrub is also prized for being an evergreen with alternate, simple, glossy, toothed leaves with deep green-colored foliage that provides a striking background to the spectacular blooms. Today there are more than 200 species and more than 20,000 varieties of camellias for growers to enjoy.
Camellias are a slow-growing shrub that typically grow in height to 6 to12 feet and are best suited for USDA hardiness zones 7-10. They prefer acidic, well-drained soils located in shaded areas as an understory to the pine tree. These shrubs can be trained to a single trunk to give it a tree form, and old plantings can grow up to 25 feet tall.
The best time to plant new camellia shrubs in Louisiana is March and late fall. In Louisiana, plants can be planted year round, but early spring is best to get the root system established before the hot summer weather arrives and the plant will require less attention.
In south Louisiana, alkaline soil can be a problem for establishing new camellias, and in north Louisiana, colder temperatures often damage flower buds. Consideration for these issues should be taken into account by soil testing and amending the soil as needed and by protecting and planting in proper areas.
It is important to maintain a 2-to-3-inch layer of mulch year-round to prevent weeds, provide organic matter, help retain moisture and maintain cool roots that are protected from intense heat. Water moderately on a regular basis. Older, established plants can live off of annual rainfall and are a great deal more tolerant of full sun and drying winds. New plantings should be watered regularly, and one should consider installing irrigation to get better establishment. Younger plants are less tolerant of full sun and drying winds.
Fertilize with azalea-camellia fertilizer or complete fertilizer such as 13-13-13 in late winter or early spring according to the manufacturer’s label, preferably in March before new growth begins. Camellias are especially sensitive to overfertilzation that can damage delicate roots that lie close to the soil’s surface. Cottenseed meal can be used in spring after blooming or in the second year after planting. It is not generally recommended to fertilize at initial planting other than with a superphosphate 0-46-0 application.
Prune camellias, if needed, only after blooming and before new vigorous spring growth begins. Camellia buds set in the summertime, so you do not want to wait any later than May to prune.
Camellias are susceptible to tea scale that can be a serious problem that may require annual spraying with dormant oil. Winter is the best time to apply horticultural sprays when scale is a problem. Camellia petal blight is also a disease that may affect camellias. Flowers are affected and symptoms include rapidly brown turning flower petals. Consult your local AgCenter agent or plant pathologist on more information if you see this problem.
The LSU AgCenter has a few locations where large collections of camellias can be enjoyed by the public in wintertime. These locations are featured as part of the American Camellia Society’s Gulf Coast Camellia Trail Gardens. They include the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden and the AgCenter Hammond Research Station.
Two camellia collections are spread throughout the Botanic Gardens at Burden. The Crowder camellia collection, an early American camellia collection, features many of the first camellias brought to the U.S. prior to the 1900s by Florence Crowder. The Stone camellia collection, one of the largest private camellia collections in the U.S., containing more than 450 identified varieties collected by Violet and Hank Stone.
You can visit the Hody Wilson Camellia Garden at the Hammond Research Station during the annual camellia stroll in February. This collection was planted from the mid-1930s until mid-1970s by the station superintendent, W.F. “Hody” Wilson Jr. Known internationally for his camellia breeding, Wilson’s most well-known selections are Mansize and Jerry Wilson.
Some of the most easily obtained camellia selections and old standbys are Alba Plena, Debutante, Elegans, Herme, Kramers Supreme, Professor Sargent, Finlandia, Red Giant and White By the Gate. One of my personal favorites is Lady Hume’s Blush. It has a delicate pink, formal, double bloom, and the shrub is a slow, loose, spreading form.
Lady Hume’s Blush camellia. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Ozeki camellia. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Premier Variegated camellia. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Melisa Anne camellia. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter