Camellias as Garden Treasures

A camellia is a fine selection for the garden, when well planted and given the right care.

The camellia, which has been called “Japan Rose,” is a flowering shrub that is native to eastern and southern Asia.

Camellia japonica

The genus includes up to 300 species, and 3,000 hybrids, most of which are cultivars of C. japonica. Other cultivars are from C. reticulate and C. sasanqua. There are also popular cross-species hybrids.

This plant comes to mind now because May and June are the months for the best times to prune widely grown C. japonica cultivars, right after they have stopped blooming. C. sasanqua cultivars form buds at this time of the year and bloom in autumn. It’s already too late to prune these plants because to prune them now would reduce flowering.

Camellias are valued additions to the garden because of their attractive, evergreen glossy foliage and their flowers, which resemble roses, which come in a range of colors from white, through pink to red. Some creamy yellow hybrids have been produced in recent years; truly yellow flowers exist but are found in nature only in South China and Vietnam. C. flava is a yellow-flowering species that has interested hybridizers seeking to develop cultivars with desirable properties for the garden.

The American Camellia Society has defined six basic forms of camellia blossoms: Single, Semi-double, and four double forms: Anemone form, Peony form, Rose-form double, and the Formal double. A gardener’s inspiration could be to collect examples of each of these forms. The Society ‘s website provides a wealth of public information on these plants and invites membership for even more information.

Camellias sometimes are regarded as challenging to cultivate, but success can be achieved readily by planting and caring for a camellia correctly.

First, select a site that limits direct exposure to the sun. Especially for young plants, the preference is for filtered sunlight under a tall tree, or morning sun and afternoon shade. Older plants can tolerate greater exposure to sunlight.

Second, the soil of the site should be slightly acidic, i.e., 6.0 or 6.5 on the pH scale, which runs from 0 to 14. In the Monterey Bay area, soils tend to neutral (7.0) on this alkalinity to acidity scale. Unless you have tested the pH of your soil, it’s reasonable to assume it’s neutral and to modify it toward acidity. To do this, add common sulfur, ferrous sulfate, or sphagnum peat moss when planting, and regularly provide organic amendments such as compost and manure.

Sulfur is least expensive but might require annual applications. Ferrous sulfate adds iron to the soil and is recommended for plants that show yellow leaves. Peat moss works well when added to the planting hole, or applied on the soil’s surface, but has been criticized as a non-sustainable resource. When shopping for peat moss, look for Canadian peat moss, which is not endangered, rather than European peat moss. (A future column will present more information on peat moss as a renewable resource.)

Finally, provide regular water for young plants to promote the development of a deep root system. Mature plants can be drought-tolerant but will benefit from at least occasional irrigation.

By following these basic guidelines, you could enjoy a delightful camellia in your garden.

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