Low-maintenance, shade-loving, small trees or shrubs, camellias throw themselves into spellbinding bloom during the dull days from late fall into early spring, when there’s not much cheer happening in the garden. Available in a remarkable range of colors, forms, and sizes, camellias bloom in hues from white or pink to deep red. Some flowers are as simple as a wild rose while others as full blown as a peony. While you’ll grow them for the flowers, the evergreen dark glossy leaves look great year round.
The two most commonly grown kinds of camellia are sasanquas and japonicas. Sasanquas, which have an open, airy structure with smaller flowers and leaves, can handle more sun than the japonicas and tend to bloom earlier. Japonicas, which are larger in overall size, with bigger leaves and flowers, thrive in shade and tend to bloom later in the season.
From groundcovers to small trees, camellias can fill many corners of the garden with long-lasting blooms. Here are six ways we love to use them.
Best Bloom Sequence
Camellias are categorized by bloom times. Sasanquas (Camellia sasanqua) bloom early to mid season, Japonicas (Camellia japonica) from mid to late season, and hybrids can be either. Plant a variety for blooms from November through June. (Blooming periods can vary for warmer or cooler locations.)
Early: October to December
Mid-season: January to March
Late: April to May
Romantic Hedges and Screens
While few camellias are “fast growers,” (they typically reach six to 12 feet tall and wide in about10 to 15 years), the sasanqua varieties and some of the hybrids do grow more quickly than the japonicas. But, the flowers of the japonicas are longer lasting, so its a bit of a tradeoff. Your best way to decide which to plant as a hedge is to figure out conditions in summer and choose accordingly as sasanqua varieties can tolerate some sun. One tip? Purchase at least one extra plant for every twenty or so in your hedge and plant it elsewhere in the garden. If something goes wrong with one of the plants in your hedge, you’ll have a same-age replacement to slot in.
Flat-Out Elegant Espalier
Where space is limited (or you just want a showstopping effect) camellias can be trained to grow against a flat surface such as a wall. While you can train most camellias (or buy them that way…check with your local garden center for availability), sasanqua varieties, with their open, arching growth are a good choice. Here are three varieties that are ideal. Espaliers need work, especially over the growing season, but if you like to prune and shape plants, they’re right up your alley. It may take some time, but the end result is so worth it. Good tutorial here.
Winter-Interest Small Tree
Camellias naturally grow as a small to medium shrub but may also be trained to grow as a small tree. Choose a camellia that’s naturally tall and wide like the three below, and in late winter or early spring once it’s finished blooming, prune away lower branches and stems until you get the look you’re after. You might wish to train your camellia as a tree with multiple trunks as pictured here. Leave all upright stems in place or choose three to five of the strongest and remove the rest. Remove any branches from the lower one-third of those stems and prune the canopy into a rounded shape (seriously, this sounds more difficult than it is!).
Shady Understory Solution
While most of the more famous camellia varieties tend to be on the taller size (averaging about 8 ft. tall when mature, though very old specimens can top out at 20 ft.), there are plenty that stay smaller and more compact. These varieties are ideal for planting under the canopy of tall, open trees where water and soil conditions are compatible; tall, deep-rooted pine trees are ideal. As their roots are shallow, avoid planting them under shallow-rooted shade trees such as birch and maple. These are also a good solution to what to plant along a foundation on the shady side of the house.
While there aren’t an endless variety of them, some of the sasanquas have a naturally low growing, horizontal habit which makes for pretty fabulous ground covers in partial shade. Use them under trees, between taller camellia shrubs, or on slopes–anywhere they can be left to their own devices to scramble and branch out. One bonus is that while deer will munch on the pretty flowers (sigh), they tend to leave the glossy, deep-green foliage alone.
Finally, we come to one of the best uses for camellias in the landscape, which is the way they prettily disguise not-so-lovely moments such as fences and weird spaces where you want something but don’t want to fuss over it. Side of the garage? Somewhat narrow space along the driveway? The lattice that’s not giving you the privacy you want? A wall of camellia creates a sleight of hand that makes all of that disappear behind evergreen foliage that always looks good. Underplant them with something that blooms during the summer and you’ll turn an eyesore into an enviable feature.
What Camellias Want
Camellias have an undeserved reputation for being hard to grow. They’re acid-loving plants that do best when planted in well-drained soil amended with organic materials such as compost.
Probably the most common mistake people make is planting them too deep. The trunk base should be just above the soil line. Add several inches of mulch to keep the roots cool.
Camellia shrubs need fertilizer, but not when they’re in bud or flower. Wait at least a month after they finish blooming, and then apply an acid-based fertilizer every eight weeks until they set their buds. Some camellias will drop buds. This can be a natural result of the shrub setting more buds than it can open or, more often, because it has not been planted with good soil drainage.
Camellias are excellent container plants if they’re planted in appropriate containers, such as wooden tubs or half-barrels. They can add color to a northern or eastern deck or patio, or can be placed in the garden when there is filtered light from overhanging eaves or trees.