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Camellias Brighten Winter Landscapes
by Dan Gill
by Dan Gill

email: dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu

Dan Gill earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is an Associate Professor in Consumer Horticulture with the LSU AgCenter.

He is the spokesperson for the LSU AgCenter’s Get It Growing project, a statewide educational effort in home horticulture utilizing radio, Internet, TV and newsprint. Gardeners throughout Louisiana read his columns in local newspapers, watch his gardening segments on local TV stations and listen to him on local radio. In the New Orleans area, Dan appears weekly on the Channel 4 Morning News, writes a weekly gardening column for The Times-Picayune and hosts the Saturday morning WWWL Garden Show, a live call-in radio program.

Dan is co-author of the Louisiana Gardener’s Guide and author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana. His “South Louisiana Region Report” and “Only in Louisiana” columns appear monthly in the Louisiana Gardener Magazine.


January 9, 2011

We are fortunate to live in a state where a mild winter climate allows us to grow camellias. The dark green, shiny, evergreen foliage alone is a beautiful addition to our landscapes. Then, during winter, we are rewarded with a fantastic floral display. Although almost everyone is familiar with camellias, this outstanding shrub deserves more widespread planting. Now is an excellent time to select camellias in bloom at local nurseries and plant them.

The traditional camellia, Camellia japonica, is the most prominent of the camellia species. The flowers range in color from pure white to all shades of pink to the deepest red. Some varieties are variegated with white, red and pink streaks or patches in the same flower. The form or shape of the flower can range from single to peony to formal double, and the size from a couple of inches up to 6 or 7 inches.

Success with camellias depends on the planting site. Camellias prefer partial shade to part sun – about four to six hours of direct sun with shade in the afternoon. They thrive in the light shade cast by tall pine trees but would not be as happy in the heavy shade under a large live oak. When planted in full sun, camellias are subject to more stressful conditions. In stressful full sun locations, the foliage sometimes has a yellowish look, and flower buds may not open properly.

Good drainage is essential. Do not plant camellias in areas that are poorly drained or where water settles after a rain. Plant camellias on mounds or in raised beds in areas where drainage is a problem. The addition of organic matter and, in some cases, sand to the planting area will help improve drainage. Compost, peat moss and rotted manure are all suitable forms of organic matter.

Camellias are acid-loving plants, and an alkaline soil (pH above 7) can limit their ability to obtain some nutrients, especially iron. When you are preparing the area for planting, incorporate a soil acidifier, such as sulfur, copperas or aluminum sulfate, if the pH of your soil is above 7.

Planting depth for camellias is also very important. Make sure they are planted with the upper surface of the root ball even with or slightly above the soil level of the planting area. Apply mulch several inches thick around the newly planted camellia. The mulch will help maintain moisture and prevent weed growth and should be pulled back slightly from the base of the trunk.

Tea scale is the most serious pest of camellias. These insects feed primarily on the undersides of the leaves, but in cases of extremely heavy infestations, they may also be found on the upper surfaces. The undersides of infested leaves will be covered with white and brown, slightly fuzzy masses, which eventually will lead to yellow blotches on the upper surfaces. Infested plants have poor vigor and will not bloom well.

Tea scale will generally not go away by itself and tends to get worse if not treated. Oil sprays are effective in controlling tea scale and may be used in fall, winter and spring when temperatures are between 45 and 85 degrees. Make several applications spaced two weeks apart. Dimethoate (commonly sold as Cygon) is a systemic insecticide that is used in the spring as a spray or soil drench and is especially useful in treating heavily infested plants. Always read and follow label directions carefully.

Feed camellias in the spring as new growth begins, about March or early April. Use an all-purpose fertilizer appropriate to your area or a fertilizer labeled for acid-loving plants according to the manufacturer’s label directions.

Although excellent drainage is necessary, camellias need adequate water, especially during hot, dry spells during the summer. This is particularly important for newly planted shrubs during their first year.

Now is also a great time to purchase and plant camellias in containers. As beautiful as they are in the ground, camellias adapt happily to life in containers and are particularly impressive grown that way. Growing camellias in containers allows gardeners to cultivate them where ground space is not available, such as an apartment balcony, deck or patio. It also allows you to move the plant around to different locations – bringing it to a prominent position while its flowers are at their best and placing it in a more out-of-the-way spot at other times, for instance.

Camellias are hardy, and there is no need to move container plants into a protected location during winter – except for the rare occasions when temperatures will go below 20 degrees and the root ball might freeze. You have the option, however, to move the plant inside on nights to save open flowers from injury when hard freezes are predicted.

Camellias are part of our Southern gardening heritage. A few well-placed specimens will brighten up your landscape during the winter when few other shrubs are blooming.

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