Few landscape plants make more impact in winter than camellias. The sasanqua types bloom in late fall and early winter, while the common or japonica types bloom from mid-winter to early spring. I have several at school that are blooming now and they are gorgeous.
These evergreen shrubs can grow to be rather large specimen plants and reach heights of 15 feet. They tolerate many different soil types but prefer rich, moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil high in organic matter. Camellias are shallow-rooted, so they should not be planted deeply and the soil should not be packed down on their delicate fibrous roots.
It helps to mulch around the plants with organic mulch. This also moderates ground temperatures. Camellias aren’t heavy fertilizer users but sometimes benefit from preparations similar to those used on hollies or azaleas. They tolerate full sun but thrive in a partially shaded environment. Yellowish leaf color is more likely caused by too much sun than lack of fertilizer or disease. Too much fertilizer causes weak growth. It can also make them more susceptible to disease.
Plants normally require little pruning. The best time to cut them back is right after they bloom. Trimming them in fall is not a good idea, since it will eliminate much of their flowering.
Deer damage to camellias is variable. They are ravaged less than azaleas but are not immune to occasional browsing. Unfortunately, flower buds are the most likely parts deer eat and these develop at a time when other food is scarce.
Like many common landscape plants camellias have uses beyond mere beauty. Common and sasanqua camellias are close relatives of commercial tea plants (Camellia sinensis). These ubiquitous landscape ornamentals can be used to make tea as well. It can be fun to experiment.
Trim young shoot tips from new growth in spring. You should be able to accomplish this with your thumb and finger, so only pinch back what will easily snap off. No pruning shears are necessary.
Crush these leaves in your hands and put them in a cardboard box, basket or similar container. Separate and remove the stems and let crushed leaves ferment in a cool dark place for a few days. Make sure humidity is not too high or they will mold.
Now comes the roasting, which will cure the leaves and bring out the flavor. Place your leaves on a flat tray in a cool oven (no more than 220 degrees) for up to three hours depending on dryness. Don’t let it get too hot or your tea will have a burnt flavor.
Camellia flowers also make great tea. Its flavor is similar to green tea. Flowers are also cooked with gelatinous rice to make a Japanese food called mochi.
My greatest love for camellias is that they provide much needed beauty and life during a time when most plants are dormant. As far as I am concerned they are indispensable in the landscape. They may not have the aroma of cape jasmine, lilac or magnolia, but showy blooms from November to April (depending upon the type) are tough to beat.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture in northeastern North Carolina.