Camellias are beautiful evergreen shrubs that bloom with large, exquisite flowers in many different shades and colors.
Although originally from Asia, camellias are beloved plants in the southern U.S., even becoming the official state flower of Alabama. If you’ve ever seen their romantic and showy blooms, you might be wondering how to add these shrubs to your garden.
Camellias can be a little bit picky and fussy, but following a few planting tips and tricks will give you success. With that in mind, here’s how to grow and care for camellia flower.
What Are Camellias?
Camellias are shrubs and small trees with evergreen, glossy leaves and flowers that bloom in between fall and spring. They are originally native to southeast Asia, specifically parts of China, Japan, and South Korea.
Without knowing it, you’re likely very familiar with one variety called Camellia sinensis. It’s the plant that tea leaves come from and is grown specifically for its foliage.
Most gardeners grow more ornamental varieties of camellia for their large, delicate, and fragrant blooms. They are loved not only for their flowers, but also because they bloom during the fall and winter- something not many other ornamental plants do.
Camellias provide beautiful flowers and colors during a season most plants don’t: fall to spring. They also have attractive evergreen foliage that complements the showy blooms.
Camellia flowers come in a range of forms including single, informal double (also called peony), semi-double, and formal double. There are also anemone and rose forms.
Who Can Grow Camellia Flower?
Most gardeners in USDA hardiness zones 7-10 can grow camellias. Plants need mild winters in order to survive and unfortunately cannot be grown in most northern regions.
However, for gardeners growing in zone 6, new cold hardy varieties were hybridized recently that can take temperatures as cold as -10°F. If you live somewhere that gets colder than this, you can still grow camellias in containers and bring them indoors during the winter.
Camellia plants also need plenty of water, especially as they get established. They aren’t the best choice for dry regions unless you’re willing to install irrigation or water often by hand.
Different types of camellias bloom at different times, and this is something to keep in mind when you’re choosing plants.
You can select a variety that blooms at a certain time or buy a mix of varieties so that you have continuous blooms from fall to spring in your garden. Here are the common bloom periods:
- Fall Blooming– This type typically starts blooming as the leaves begin to change color and goes until early winter. Bloom time is October-January in the northern hemisphere.
With several different varieties to choose from, you can easily cover the whole season from October to May with the lovely blooms of camellia flower.
- Winter Blooming– This type starts blooming as the fall ones finish and continues into early spring. Best for brightening up dreary winter weather. Blooms January-March in the northern hemisphere.
- Spring Blooming– This type picks up where the winter ones left off and blooms until mid-spring. Bloom time is March-May in the northern hemisphere.
- Long Blooming– This type is unique and will bloom from November to April in the northern hemisphere.
Recommended Varieties and Cultivars
Although there are about 250 different species of camellia, only a few are commonly grown as ornamental shrubs. Here are the most popular:
- Camellia japonica– Japanese camellias are probably the most frequently grown species with over 30,000 existing cultivars! Their flowers come in a huge variety of shapes and colors and usually bloom from mid-winter to spring. Flowers are large: up to 5 inches across.
- Camellia sasanqua– This type of camellia flower is also very popular and blooms in the fall making it a great complement to Japanese varieties. Flowers are mostly single or semi-double, 3-4 inches wide, and often fragrant. They range in color from white to pink to red.
- Hybrid camellia (Camellia x williamsii)– Many great options available for home gardeners are hybrids that combine the best characteristics of other varieties. Plants tend to be more vigorous and have a long blooming period.
Northern gardeners had reason to rejoice when cold hardy camellia varieties were introduced. These hybrids can take temperatures as low as -10°F.
- Cold hardy camellias– For gardeners further north, cold hardy hybrids like the ‘Winter’ or ‘April’ series are the way to go. Flowers are shades of white, pink, and occasionally red and bloom either in fall or spring.
Selecting the right variety for your landscape is just the first step. Next, you get to choose from hundreds of beautiful cultivars!
While you may be limited by what is sold at your local garden center, here are some cultivars to look for:
- ‘Fairy Blush’– Some camellias are fast growing and become small trees, but fairy blush is a compact cultivar that’s excellent for small spaces and containers. Flowers are pale pink, fragrant, and bloom mid to late season.
- ‘Bonomiana’– This is a beautiful, showy Japanese camellia. Flowers are pink and formal double with over 80 layered petals on each bloom. Shrubs grow 6-10 feet tall and bloom mid season.
- ‘Bob Hope’– Another Japanese cultivar, ‘Bob Hope’ has large, deep red, semi-double blooms with ruffled petals. It grows 6-8 feet tall and blooms mid season.
- ‘Mine-No-Yuke’– This is a sasanqua cultivar that blooms profusely with snow-white flowers. It blooms early in the season (fall) and has a graceful, willow-like habit with trailing branches.
White blooming camellias are very romantic and delicate looking. ‘Mine-No-Yuke’ is a popular fall blooming white variety and ‘Polar Ice’ is a great white-blooming option for colder areas.
- ‘ShiShi Gamira’– This is a popular sasanqua cultivar with hot pink blooms that have yellow centers. It has a low-growing, spreading habit (4-5 feet tall by 6-8 feet wide) and a romantic, weeping form.
- ‘Polar Ice’– This is a cold hardy cultivar that blooms profusely in the fall with snow white flowers and golden stamens in the center. Grows 5-6 feet tall.
- ‘April Rose’– Also a cold hardy cultivar, ‘April Rose’ has very unique deep rose-colored flowers that are streaked with white. Blooms are fragrant and rose double form. Plants bloom in the spring and grow 5-8 feet tall.
How to Grow Camellia Flower
Successfully growing camellias in your garden is mainly about picking the right growing site. If you do this, they will be a relatively care-free plant once established.
When to Plant
Because they are evergreen, camellias can be planted in fall, winter, or spring. The best planting time depends on what climate you live in.
If you’re growing in USDA zones 6 or 7, you should plant your camellias in the spring. This gives the plants time to get their root systems established before cold weather comes along.
If you’re gardening in USDA zones 8-10, you have some more flexibility. You can plant camellias in fall, winter, or spring depending on what works best for you and when plants are available to buy.
The Right Growing Conditions
Selecting the right site to grow camellias is hugely important.
In the wild, camellias usually grow in semi-shade under the canopy of other trees, and it’s important to mimic this in your garden. They do best with morning and dappled afternoon sun and should be protected by shade from hot afternoon sun.
You can try growing them on the north side of your house, under trees that will let some sunlight through, or beside some kind of structure that will provide afternoon shade.
Soil is also an important consideration because camellias need slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5-6.5) to grow in and will struggle in alkaline soil. If your soil doesn’t naturally have a low pH, you can make it more acidic with amendments like peat moss.
The planting location you choose is probably the most important factor in whether your plants will thrive or struggle. Well-drained and slightly acidic soil is critical as is afternoon shade.
Besides acidity, camellia plants need well-drained soil to keep their roots from rotting. They don’t like to have soggy feet and will likely struggle in heavy clay soil unless planted on a slope.
If your soil does not drain well, you can amend it with organic material like compost and/or peat moss.
A little care taken while planting your camellias will set them up for success.
Just like for other shrubs, start by digging a hole that’s just as deep as the root ball of your plant and about twice as wide. Fill the hole back in with a few inches of soil, then take your plant out of its container and put it in the hole.
You want the top of the root ball to be just above soil level but not more than 4 inches above grade. Camellias don’t like being planted too deep, so don’t skip this step.
Next, you can refill the hole with the soil you dug out. Gently slope the soil up the sides of the root ball, but don’t cover the top.
Mulching will help keep moisture in the soil, but too much mulch, especially piled against the stem of the plants, can be harmful and lead to root rot.
Cover the top of the root ball with a light layer of mulch (about 1 inch deep), but be sure not to heap mulch against the trunk or neck of the plant. Covering the place where the stem meets the root system too deeply is a recipe for rot that could kill your plant.
Water your new plants in thoroughly after planting.
Growing in Containers
Camellias grow very well in containers. Even the varieties that normally grow large will adapt themselves to the smaller growing space.
Containers are the best choice if you live somewhere too cold for camellias but want to grow them anyways. You can take the containers inside during the winter to a greenhouse or room with plenty of sunlight.
It’s also easier to control the acidity and texture of soil in containers since it’s much easier to amend a small amount of soil than a large planting area. If you have soil with poor drainage or have struggled growing camellias in the past, container gardening might solve your problems.
Make sure that any containers you choose have drainage holes in the bottom. Plant in pots that are at least 12 inches in diameter and at least 18 inches for larger camellias.
Camellias work well as container plants. They easily adapt to the small growing area and can be easier to maintain when grown in pots. Keep in mind that containers will need watered more often than plants in the ground.
Use a good quality potting mix and some peat moss to give your plants the acidity they need. Water well after planting.
Camellia Flower Care
The biggest maintenance concerns for camellia are three things: watering, fertilizing, and pruning.
Camellias need a good supply of water while they’re getting established, especially during the hot weather of summer.
Rain water is ideal because it is naturally slightly acidic, something camellias prefer. Tap water is fine for supplemental watering during dry periods, but you might want to consider installing a few rain barrels so that you’ll have a free supply of water to use on your plants.
If you live somewhere with long dry spells during the summer and/or you plan to plant quite a few camellias, installing drip irrigation will save you a lot of time and labor.
Irrigation systems can be timed to come on and shut off at certain times. Drip irrigation delivers water right to the roots of your plants, which is exactly where you want it to go.
Whether you want to water by hand or a system, make sure to give the roots of your plants a good soak each time you water. Watering just the top of the soil won’t do anything. You need to water enough so that it goes down as deep as the root balls of your plants.
Water your plants deeply as needed, especially while they get established and during dry spells. After plants have grown for a few years, they will have deeper root systems and need less watering.
If you didn’t do it while planting, adding a layer of mulch will help to keep moisture in the soil for longer. Just make sure you don’t pile mulch up against the stems of the plants.
Overall, camellias need little fertilizer and overfeeding can kill them. However, newly planted camellias can utilize carefully applied fertilizer to get established and put out new growth.
Use an acid fertilizer, one made especially for azaleas, camellias, and other acid-loving plants. Apply in spring after plants are done blooming and again mid-summer.
Do not apply fertilizer in the fall (after August). The plants enter a period of dormancy at this time where growth slows, and they don’t need fertilized.
Pruning can be done on your camellias to take out dead or weak branches and to thin out densely crowded growth. You can also work at shaping the shrubs to the form you would like.
You should do your pruning after plants finish blooming. What time of year this is depends on the bloom period of the variety you’re growing.
Regular pruning will help keep camellias healthy and lessen the chances of them being bothered by insects or diseases.
Use sharp pruning shears or other equipment that has been sanitized with bleach or something similar. If you’re taking off whole branches, always prune back to the main feeder branch or trunk and don’t leave nubs sticking out.
Otherwise, make your cuts right above a leaf and/or flower bud so that new growth will come out right below where you pruned.
Regular pruning will help your camellias to be healthier and helps keep away certain pests like scale.
Pests and Diseases
There are several pests and diseases that can affect camellias:
- Tea scale– Scales are insects that feed on the underside of leaves, and this is the most common form to attack camellia plants. Prevention involves regularly pruning plants so that there’s good airflow. For an existing infestation, horticultural oil is usually the best option.
- Yellowing leaves– Leaves can start turning yellow for several reasons. One reason is that the soil pH is too high and another is that plants aren’t getting enough sunlight. Yellow leaves can also be caused by iron deficiency, which can be fixed by adjusting the pH if it’s over 6.5 and adding iron to the soil.
- Blight– Camellia petal blight is a fungal disease that causes flowers to develop brown spots or tips. If you notice browning flowers without any noticeable cause, it’s likely petal blight. The best control method is to remove any leaves and petals that have dropped to the ground and destroy them (do not compost).
Camellia flowers should look colorful and healthy. If you notice brown spots developing and spreading over the petals, it could be camellia petal blight.
- Canker and dieback– These are serious fungal diseases that tend to develop more on camellias grown in the Southeast where the climate is warm and humid during much of the year. The first signs are new twigs that suddenly die followed by the browning of leaves and dieback of older twigs and branches. Sanitation and good airflow are the best preventatives, and dead branches should be pruned 6 inches below the dieback and destroyed.
- Root rot– Root rot will commonly kill camellias that are planted in areas without good drainage or that are mulched too heavily. Proper planting is the best prevention.
- Sunburn– If you notice yellow to bronze spots appearing on the leaves of your plants, it could be sunburn or sunscald. Move plants to a shadier area or add some kind of shade to shield them during the hottest part of the day.
Can You Grow Camellia for Tea Leaves?
Although camellias are most often grown for their beautiful flowers, you might be wondering whether you can grow your own tea plants.
The answer is yes- but you need to live in USDA zones 7-9 or have a greenhouse available in colder climates. If you live further north and are up for a bit of work, you can grow your tea plants in containers that are brought into a heated area during the winter.
Keep in mind that the plant tea leaves come from, Camellia sinensis, does not have showy flowers and isn’t very ornamental.
Camellia sinensis can be grown much like other camellias with the main exception that it can take more sunlight and does best in full sun to part shade.
No matter what species you choose, with a little care you can enjoy the beautiful flowers of camellia for years to come. Try pairing them with decorative maple trees, ferns, ornamental grasses, azaleas, hydrangeas, or magnolias.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.