Times When Camellias Need Help
It’s too bad that some of the best places for growing camellias lie in hurricane country. Camellias can tolerate a lot of indignity from weather, but when gardens are submerged or blown down, it can take major intervention to save prized plants.
In the past three decades, hurly burly weather systems have walloped our garden: two major hurricanes, Isabel and Irene, tornadoes, high-velocity straight-line winds, lightning strikes, nor’easters, ice storms, flooding, and one brutally cold winter.
Having seen some of our favorites broken up, submerged, or dashed to the ground, we had to learn to give them a hand.
Heavy clay soil and a high water table are no allies in this endeavor.
Sometimes we were successful. Sometimes not.
If we were not successful, it was usually because we waited too long to act.
We may not have understood what was happening, or we may not have been observant enough.
Or maybe we were just too tired from cleaning up.
Here are some ways we have successfully tackled storm damage to camellias and other plants.
When Small, Manageable Camellias Need Help
If small camellias are in trouble because soil drainage or exposure to sun has changed, we dig them and repot them in fairly coarse potting soil.
Adding composted pine bark (usually found as mulch, still chunky, about the size of your thumbnail) and perlite will improve drainage if potting soil is too fine.
We keep pots shaded and periodically check to see if they need watering by poking a finger into the soil.
Soil surface should be dry before watering. We err on the side of under-watering, rather than over-watering, since camellias dislike a medium that is too wet.
We also avoid crowding roots into a too-small pot. Three-gallon minimum, usually larger, pots are best for transplanting camellias and any other plants dug from the garden.
This is the time to bring out those large pots you’ve been saving, the ones that trees or large shrubs came in.
We’ve learned to dig and repot fairly quickly if soil drainage has changed.
Plants will show no symptoms initially if roots are affected, so we base decisions on our observations.
Are there new puddles? Has the area been historically damp? Have we lost trees nearby whose roots were siphoning enough water to keep the soil well drained?
By the time the plant starts to fail, action is too late.
A lesson learned through hard experience.
Once potted, we give the plants a year or so to recover, then replant in fall to a location that drains well.
Fall planting gives plants time to comfortably settle in before the heat of summer.
Alternatively, if plants are blooming respectably in pots, we do not disturb them and stage the pots where they will give pleasure in season.
Damage from Fallen Limbs: Pruning
Camellias are highly amenable to pruning — drastic pruning.
At the Norfolk Botanical Garden the Virginia Camellia Society often gives mini-lessons on pruning and shaping. We’ve seen a tall, 15-foot camellia taken down to, say, eight feet, with shaping. And it looks good!
Our four-foot camellia sasanqua ‘Cleopatra’ was once so infested with azalea leaf gall we cut it to the ground.
It re-sprouted quickly and regained its former size in only a few years, gall free. If roots are not damaged, hard-pruned camellias will quickly grow back and bloom.
We prune out dead, dying or broken branches, sometimes shuddering at the shapeless mass left on a hard-hit bush that may still be in shock. We do our best to remove ugly stubs that can foster disease, but we leave branches with healthy leaves that can aid recovery.
Then we wait to see what the plant wants to do during the next growing season and take our pruning cues from new growth.
It may take a couple of years of pruning before the plant becomes a pleasing specimen again.
Damage from Falling Limbs: Repairs to Split Branches or Trunks
If a trunk or branch has been split in two, we match the broken limbs and wrap the bundle tightly with electrical tape.
It’s best to act quickly after a storm, but sometimes we don’t discover the damage immediately.
Still, we’ve seen tremendous healing take place even when repairs are made as late as a week or two after a storm.
This is a two-person job as we want as precise a match and as tight a wrap as possible.
Leave the repair for at least one growing season before removing the tape. If the branch is still unstable, tape must be left for another growing season.
We have also used green plant ties for wrapping, as they can be woven tightly.
However, we learned you can’t forget about them as the branch simply grows over them and removal is impossible.
Apparently this is not tragic as the camellia in question is growing and blooming happily.
Sometimes a break is low on the plant and the split branch is heavy and ungainly.
If the attempted rehab seems too wobbly, we attach a wooden splint, sized a little longer than the break, as we wrap.
Sometimes a newly planted camellia will lose leaves, exposing twigs. This is not true dieback but simply tells us the plant is struggling to adapt to its conditions.
We have old plants today, ‘Betty Sheffield’ and ‘Simeon,’ that looked spikey and needed regular nipping for the longest time. They are growing and blooming happily today.
(We now suspect that soil was not organic enough and the planting bed, the highest on our property, was too dry and the plants were starving for nutrients.)
If, on the other hand, twigs on a camellia die back soon after a storm or any change in conditions, we get out the pruners for some serious work.
Dieback is caused by a fungus and is hard to control.
We prune twigs until we see no dark discoloration on the cut ends, and then, for good measure, we make one final cut beyond. Often we cut out the entire branch.
(For good measure, pruners should be dipped in alcohol after working on diseased plants.)
On one plant, Bob actually carved a piece out of the main trunk to find non-diseased wood. We hoped a lot.
The resulting wound is not pretty, but it healed and the plant has grown well. We are still waiting for profuse bloom, which will be the final sign that the plant is happy. We are learning patience.
Once we’ve seen dieback, we continue to check the entire plant.
Often, if conditions are not changed, the fungus will inhibit plant growth. With fertilizing, mulching, and pruning when necessary, sometimes parts of a plant that are not infected can grow to replace sick limbs.
Mulching is especially important because over time the composted mulch can moderate poor drainage, especially if the camellia sits lower in a bed than it should, or if a bed is too moist.
Too Much Sun
When shade trees have fallen, camellias may be getting more sun than they want, or they may be supremely happy.
Sasanquas, for instance, seem to relish sunshine. Our ‘Chansonettes’ exploded after hurricane Isabel took down trees that were shading them.
But once shaded japonica camellias will often respond to full sun with bleached, sickly-yellow leaves.
Bloom may not be diminished, but the faded backdrop can be jarring and blooms will fade quickly. Sun-scald in winter, if the plant faces east, is another sad possibility.
It can take a long time for newly planted trees to cast shade. Below we list a range of choices from large trees to small trees to less permanent plants.
Pines are one of the best overstory trees for camellia beds. They grow fast and they moderate soil moisture.
Falling needles can pose a cosmetic problem. For aesthetics, we try to brush away fallen needles when the plant is in bloom. But it is a nuisance.
Large canopy trees slow or hinder growth of camellias: oaks, native red maples, sweet gum, tulip trees. Their opportunistic roots will head right for new camellias that are watered and fertilized and will create a solid mat. Or they may cast so much shade that bloom becomes sparse.
Small trees, such as cherries, crabapples, and magnolias are fast growers, especially if fertilized regularly, and are not so greedy for nutrients and water.
Native redbud, red buckeye and serviceberry, understory trees, are also good choices.
All these small trees have the bonus of fine bloom either in or out of synch with camellia bloom-time.
A gardening friend plants tall, fast-growing annuals/perennials/tropicals for temporary, if limited, shade.
Massed amaranthus or castor bean (poisonous), even joepyeweed or New York ironweed, for instance, can grow to about 8 or 10 feet in a season. Strange bedfellows for camellias, but they shade and cool the soil.
Less temporary but large, fast growing shrubs that can tolerate both sun and light shade are possibilities for a permanent mixed bed. Examples: oleander, bridal wreath spirea, rose of sharon and beautyberry. These will give partial relief to that lone soldier-in-the-sun camellia until trees grow up.
When a Camellia is Flattened or Uprooted
We have never had a camellia uprooted, but during Isabel a couple of young, six-to-eight-foot trees were flattened and partially uprooted.
We feel confident that our approaches to rescuing these trees can be applied to good–sized camellias that are crushed by debris.
For best results, some roots should seem solid; in other words, you should not be able to pull the plant out of the ground.
Here are two examples of repairs to trees after Hurricane Isabel.
The buried crabapple After removing the heavy old pine that had knocked it down, we roped the crabapple to a nearby large tree and to a stake near its trunk for solid support.
We over-compensated the pull so when we gingerly released the crabapple a year or so later, it bounced back to vertical.
Today it blooms heavily and its berries feed flocks of birds in fall.
The lost zelkova Originally raised from a cutting, this fast-growing tree had been buried so deep in the soil and covered with so much debris, that it took several days for us to realize it was missing.
Half its root ball was still steady in the ground, so we raised it and supported it as you would stake a newly planted tree. (We use cut-up garden hose around guy wires to protect trunks from damage.)
Today, despite full recovery, the zelkova is gone, a victim of its fast, outsized growth and weedy appearance that was incompatible with our azaleas and camellias.
It survived a hurricane but not our good graces.
If a plant is uprooted or too unstable for staking but still small enough to handle reasonably, we dig it, pot it, watch it, and replant a year or two later when the plant has grown new roots and is sturdy.
Tea scale in eastern North Carolina attacks plants young and old, and plants shocked by storms or stressed by bad weather. For instance, in very wet years, tea scale seems to thrive on our camellias.
Yet it is precisely during stress that the tree needs support from its leaves to speed recovery.
To avoid unpleasant surprises, we check plants for tea scale for a few months after severe storms.
Mottled yellowing on the tops of leaves is a neon clue. Turn the leaf over and you will find a rough white film and/or brown speckles.
If symptoms are spotted on more than an occasional leaf, we spray the undersides of leaves with horticultural oil until oil is dripping off the plant and coverage is assured.
Heavily infested leaves will eventually fall and be replaced by healthy leaves. In a few weeks, the undersides of leaves should appear cleaner, but in severe cases, a second spraying may be good insurance.
Given choices, the most efficient time to spray is spring. Otherwise spray when temperatures are 50 to 80 degrees. For more thorough coverage of this common disease of camellias in eastern North Carolina, see Insects and Diseases of Camellias.
A Last Resort
If a favorite plant is still healthy but damaged and you think you might eventually lose it because growing conditions have changed, take some cuttings or air layer a branch.
Propagation should be done before the plant shows any signs of deterioration.
We usually propagate plants in late spring or early summer, but storms come any time. Autumn in the South brings new life to the garden, so we have had some success propagating plants then.
In general, the media for cuttings should be well drained, though not as dry as that used for potting camellias. For specifics, see our entries on Air Layering Camellias and Propagation
Saving plants? It’s a potpourri of experiments with a bundle of hope tossed into the mix. If we succeed, we celebrate. If not, we count the lessons we learned.