Tropical surprise in winter coat
There may seem little surprising about Camellia at first sight, but products of Camellia sinensis are in every home (and office and factory and workshop…) in the land, for it is the tea plant. There are also many gardens where you can find Camellia japonica, or Japanese rose, looking green and glossy through the winter and bearing beautiful flowers when we need them most. This, almost tropical, winter beauty is what makes Camellia so special.
Camellias are evergreen, long-flowering shrubs and small trees with long, dark green, glossy leaves. The flowers resemble those of roses and are attractive, large and conspicuous, sometimes reaching 12 inches in diameter. Colours range from white to purple or red, depending on variety. Camellia japonica 'Lady Campbell' for example, has large, prolific, bright red flowers. Many species of Camellia bloom in the period from February to May, but there are also hardy autumn flowering varieties too. The fragrant, double-flowered pink Camellia 'Ashton's Ballethas’ is in its glory from October to December whereas the bright pink flowered Camellia 'Sugar 'blooms from November to January.
The right place
Camellia, along with Magnolia, prefers a slightly acidic soil with plenty of humus. Because they look so lush and tropical, people tend to situate them in the most sheltered places. In principle this is correct, but not every sheltered spot is suitable. For example, Camellia won’t perform to its very best on a south facing wall, even though intuitively you might think this is ideal. In fact, the buds benefit from being kept cool. A partially shaded position is probably the best situation, ideally away from early morning sun. If buds warm up too quickly after frost they can drop off, meaning no flowers! Camellias are great when grown with companion plants around their base. Plant Pulmonaria, Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) or Gallanthus (snowdrops) with them, all of which will flower around the same time and look fabulous underneath your Camellia.
Care of your Camellia
Camellias grow about 15-20 inches per year. Prune carefully after flowering, to maintain shape, if required. The plant does not need to be pruned for its own good. Make sure soil is kept moist in dry summer conditions and feed half way through summer with potassium-rich fertilizer. Water well after feeding, but use rainwater rather than tap water, which may contain lime. As ericaceous plants, Camellias hate lime. Protect from cold winds and frost. If low temperatures are forecast for a prolonged period, cover your Camellia with horticultural fleece, readily available from any garden centre.
More tender Camellias
Those camellia species that are not quite hardy will do extremely well in pots, if you move them in and out of a conservatory or greenhouse when frost threatens. Rather than putting your plant through all the stress of re-potting, it’s better to provide a bit more food to the plant and top up the compost with humus rich topsoil. Reduce watering of pot-grown Camellias to once a week in autumn and once a month in autumn. In the spring gradually increase watering as temperatures rise and day length increases.
Nice to know
- There are about eighty species of camellias, all from the Far East.
- Camellias will transform your garden, balcony or terrace early in the year when most plants and trees are still waiting for their leaves to appear.
- Low temperatures are not harmful to the Camellia in itself, even though frost can damage buds and affect flowering for the coming season. Actually they are hardy and will bring you a show of flowers at some of the coldest times of the year.
- If you’re not quick enough with the horticultural fleece, frost damage may cause Camellias to lose some of their leaves, but don’t panic, in the course of the year the plant will recover, especially if you can move it to a sheltered spot (pot grown plants).
- Hint: . Camellia japonica is a surface rooting plant so it is important not to hoe or otherwise disturb the surface immediately around the plant.
- The seeds of Camellia oleifera are processed to make hugely expensive oil which is used in the Far East for cooking as well as being consumed for its cosmetic benefits. It contains anti-oxidants that help protect the body’s cells from the processes of ageing, strengthens the immune system and keeps skin and hair healthy.