8. Choosing Camellias

Whatever you do, wherever you live, if you only plant one camellia, plant it so you can see it from your window when it blooms. And make sure it’s a bright one, no pale pinks or whites that can fade into the last dreary days of winter.

Our serendipitous winter delight, paired accidentally with an upstart magnolia stellata

Make it a red, a bright red that’s a beacon for a new season. We did just that. Each winter a rosy camellia brightens our indoor hours and makes us smile.

I wish we could take credit for the coup.

We needed a home for a good-looking air layer, unknown vintage, unknown color. Pot in hand, we wandered the garden aimlessly.

Close-up of complex bloom on our lovely, tree-hugging Japonica

The best opening at the time (Our garden is really a hotel for plants, sometimes they even switch rooms.) was a small space directly off a path and a couple of feet from a large, mature sweet gum.

Insane site, but we could dig without chopping roots and drainage was good. To banish guilt we gave it an extra dollop of compost. The camellia is thriving.

It’s still a five-foot juvenile, but this winter it gave us forty or fifty blooms. You never know in a garden. However, some kind of planning is usually preferred. (Spoilsport!)

Camellia x ‘Crimson Candles,’ a hybrid, profuse bloomer whose buds look like red candles, young and a bit lax in habit, maybe from excessive shade and soil moisture in its spot

Come to think of it, a camellia next to a porch is not a bad idea, either. Front or back, whichever entry you use more often. But you have to choose carefully. We’ve recently planted a ‘Crimson Candles’ next to our front porch and it is a delight.

It’s an air layer from a friend’s plant so we knew it was not a godzilla that would swallow the front door. It has an open, airy, informal look, casual for a camellia. (This planting was planned.)

Yes, camellias come in different sizes and shapes. Some are spreading, some are upright, some are compact growers.

Some are slow, oh so slow growers, some seem to chug along at a good clip. Some like to catch the sun’s rays, others bloom fine in full shade.

C. sasanqua ‘Chansonette’, profuse fall bloomer to 6 feet wide, 3 feet tall. Ours are 10 feet wide and 7 feet tall, in full sun and dry soil with competition

All of them grow bigger than you think.

Did I mention that camellias grow big? Bigger than you think? Bigger than books or plant tags say?

In Japan camellias can grow to thirty feet, in China to 20 feet, small trees.  In Galicia, northwest Spain,  where camellias are can be over a hundred years old, they grow as trees along avenues.

They can do this in your garden, too, though chances are. you will not see such extravagant growth in your lifetime.

They are often found on hillsides, which tells you they like perfect drainage.

Buying Camellias

Camellias japonica ‘Simeon’ (left) and ‘Betty Sheffield’ coming into bloom, 20 years old, initially awkward, ungainly, today top the backyard shed (barely seen here) despite annual air layering to bring them down. Pink blossoms on right are “sports,” maybe a reversion to parent plant that produced the seedling that is now sold as ‘Betty Sheffield’

There are a couple of ways you can proceed when buying a camellia. Let’s say you’ve fallen in love with a camellia in a nursery. It has a gorgeous drop-dead flower that distracts you from everything else about the plant. It’s even prettier than Janet’s down the block and won’t she be envious.

You are in a swoon and you want to plunk down your 20 or 30 bucks (or more) right away before somebody else steals your prize.

This plant belongs to you now, even though you haven’t paid for it yet.

Go ahead, do it, take the leap.

A pretty formal double C. japonica fallen in tact, typical of japonicas

Or, you could take a step back and consider.

Spoilsport again! (On paper, anyway.) I bet you knew this was coming. What chronicler of gardening ever says, “Oh, just plant it anywhere.”

Still, I feel for you. It takes unusual fortitude that we gardeners don’t always have to say no, because. . .read on!

It’s a definite plus to buy directly from a nursery that grows its own plants. For example, Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill NC offers fine plants at reasonable prices. The nursery is a delight to visit. They have limited hours, but you can order by mail.

Camellia societies have shows and sales to raise money and their camellias are generally purchased directly from successful growers.

C. sasanqua flower petals fall singly, here creating a carpet in Galicia, northeast Spain (Travelogue photo)

Nuccio Nurseries in California sell fine plants mail order but, as with most mail order nurseries, they are usually smaller than one imagines when reading the descriptions. These will need extra time to grow into exciting plants.

But mail order is probably not the way you want to go if you are only buying one or two camellias and are not hunting for a particular type to add to a collection.

You can find excellent specimens at local nurseries and home improvement stores.

. . .Getting back to the nursery where you need to make a decision, here are some suggestions on what to look for other than great big fancy blooms.

First, Check the Plant Carefully

Is the top growth healthy?

Lesions or swellings on the trunks.  Dead twigs on branches. Yellow, unhealthy-looking leaves. Evidence of leaf drop. Insect damage. Excessive pruning. These do not bode well for healthy growth in your garden.

You are looking for smooth trunks. dark, shiny green leaves, all of them still attached to the plant,  and an attractive shape without evidence of heavy pruning.

Second, Check the Roots

C. sasanqua ‘Cleopatra’, simple blooms  with single pinwheel of petals

Are the roots in good shape? Fine white roots, which indicate healthy activity, should have grown out to the edge of the pot enough so the root ball stays in tact.

There should be no girdling by heavy roots. The root ball should not be fused into an impenetrable brick. Often, plants look fine on top but are potbound because growth is forced or plants have spent too much time in too small a pot.

Keep in mind that growth on a good plant in a one-gallon pot will quickly outpace growth on a potbound plant that has spent too much time in a three-gallon pot.

A lovely peony type Camellia japonica

To find this out you have to unpot the plant. Most people don’t, but more people should.

If you feel uncomfortable doing this, and I admit I do because the plant still belongs to someone else, ask the manager of the nursery to do it for you.

We’ve never had one refuse us.

See Siting and Planting Camellias for tackling potbound plants.)

Third, Check Lineage

C. japonica brilliant red rose form

Use your smartphone or ipad to get an on-the-spot review of your camellia in the American Camellia Society encyclopedia of 800 varieties and their profiles.

Mature size is not listed, but words like spreading, dense, upright, compact can give clues to growth habits. There are thousands of varieties so don’t be surprised if your variety is missing.

Do a search to see what nurseries advertising on line have to say about your choice. Sites for botanical gardens, state universities, or agricultural or cooperative extensions can balance a nursery’s glowing report.

Hardy, bright C. sasanqua ‘Setsugeka,’ has been around in gardens for decades

Keep in mind that some camellias do better in some areas than others.

Members of local camellia societies can tell you about their favorites, but that requires some planning, which most of us forget to do.

So, go ahead. If your prize looks good, go for it.

But before you do, let me tell you about….

My Own Sad Experiences

I badly wanted a ‘Magnoliaeflora’ camellia. They are hard to find, so when I saw just one (last and least?) in a nursery, I snapped it up for too much money. It was weak and I knew it, but I thought I could be a hero and give it new life. It died.

Much later on, I finally settled for C. japonica ‘Taylor’s Perfection,’ a close cousin of ‘Pink Perfection,’ here backlit by a western sun

Another favorite of mine is ‘Pink Perfection’. A knowledgeable person I trusted said he had a good rooted one he would give me, so we agreed to swap for a rooted variety he wanted.

He had left the plant, obviously weak, on the front porch and did not answer the door bell. Foolishly, I left my handsome air layer and took his plant. It died. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to leave his plant and keep mine?

So you see, I know whereof I speak.

Camellias Choices

Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua are standard bearers in the garden, but these days you may encounter hybrids and other species as you shop.

C. reticulata ‘Frank Hauser Variegated’ hybrid, big and bold, a consistent winner at camellia shows (Pinterest)

Camellia japonica: Late winter to spring blooms in colors and sizes that range from small pastel single flowers to large, bold, complex flowers that camellia fanciers cherish.

They grow as a large shrub to a small tree up to 25 feet, more usually, in our lifetimes, to 12 feet with a spread of 6 to 10 feet.

Flowers drop in tact, sometimes turning brown before they do, can be unsightly.

C. sasanqua ‘Our Linda,’ prolific bloom, grown to tree-size in only a few years

Camellia sasanqua: Fall bloomers (October to December), smaller leaves, profuse flowers, often smaller and simpler than japonicas, mostly single or semi-double.

Petals drop singly to make a pretty carpet. Open habit up to 12 feet, will tolerate more sun than japonicas and are more tolerant of imperfect drainage.

Camellia reticulata: Bloom when japonicas bloom, have the largest blooms of all camellias, crossed with japonicas to create exquisite blooms seen in shows.

C. sinensis, blooms exquisite but hang upside down from the branch, difficult to appreciate (web photo)

Camellia sinensis: Plain Jane, good grower but inconsequential blooms. Leaves used for brewing the green and black teas we drink, hence known as the tea plant.

It’s a conversation piece if you have space, or if you want to brew your own tea. (For now I’ll stick to Twinings.)

Camellia oleifera: Known as the Tea-Oil plant for its cooking oil made by pressing its seeds. It’s a “heart-healthy” oil: 80 percent monounsaturated fat, high in oleic and linoleic acids and anti-oxidants. Used as a cross to create hardy hybrids. Simple, fragrant flowers.

Tea Oil camellia, Photo from Seattle Japanese Garden

Camellia chrysantha or nitidissima: Yellow camellias used for hybridizing yellow camellias. Not cold hardy. Did not thrive in our garden.

Camellia hybrids: The results of cross- pollinating two species. Bred for color, size of bloom, fragrance and hardiness, with lineage expressed with an X between the names of parents. Cold hardy camellias owe their existence to hybridizing.

Cold Hardy Camellias

Many cold hardy camellias can withstand the –10 degree temperatures of zone 6, though frosts and rains can take their tolls. These hardies were bred by plant scientists working in Baltimore MD and Chapel Hill NC who crossed good bloomers with plants, specifically, tea oil camellias, that can tolerate cold.

Camellia ‘Winter Interlude’ blooms profusely in fall in our zone 8 garden as does spring-blooming  ‘April Dawn’ not pictured

Plants tend to grow smaller and priority should be given to protecting leaves from prevailing winter winds and winter sun.

They should be planted in spring to give them a summer of root growth. North of Baltimore, soil temperatures drop too early in fall for roots on new plants to become established.

The “Winter” series features fall bloomers. Spring bloomers are part of the “April” series, but there are other fine cold-hardy hybrids that are not in these series.

You will most likely be purchasing a fall bloomer in fall because that is when you will fall in love with it If you live in northern states, give it extra protection the first winter at least, possibly mulching with salt hay in a cage, similar to techniques used on roses in the north.

Happy Buying! If you want more ideas, check out our pages on  Siting and Planting Camellias and Landscaping with Camellias. 

A favorite in our garden from an air layer of unknown origin

Camellias in our Garden     Siting and Planting Camellias

Pruning and Fertilizing our Camellias     Insects and Diseases of Camellias

Camellias Become Collateral Storm Damage     Camellia Recovery and Care

   Air Layering Camellias    Wildlife and Camellias

Choosing Camellias     Landscaping with Camellias    Companions for Camellias

Special for Camellia Lovers