The Queen of the Winter Flowers – Camellias

The Camellia is by no means the first shrub that comes to mind when thinking about trees and shrubs that grow well in the subtropical regions of the world but none the less these breathtaking flowering plants do have a place in gardens in this climate zone and given the right soil preparation, location and care can be grown successfully, rewarding their owners with some of the most stunning flowers that the floral world has to offer.

Camellia assortment
Camellia assortment

When embarking on the journey to grow camellias in warmer climates, type, species and variety must be considered. Not all varieties perform well so careful selection will ensure that there is less likely hood of disappointment.

Camellias flower throughout Autumn and Winter and this is when plants are the most readily available to purchase. This is the time to visit gardens with camellias and attend local camellia shows to see the wonderful range to choose from and talk to local growers and experts on what are the best choices to make.

Camellias hail from the Asian continent and are found naturally in China, Japan and surrounding countries. Probably the most famous of all the camellias in the world is Camellia sinensis, in which the world’s most popular beverage is made from its leaves, tea.

For the best results we’ll look at all the facts you need to know before you start out.

Care of Camellias.

Camellia japonica 'Great Eastern’
Camellia japonica “Great Eastern’ makes a spectacular hedge and being a darker colour will take a reasonable amount of sun.

Position. Depending on where you are located and which type you are wishing to grow will dictate the position in which you plant your camellias. As a general rule though Camellia sasanquas will tolerate full sun to semi shade but Camellia japonicas, hybrids and reticulatas are better off in semi shade to filtered light due to our warmer winters and harsher sunlight during the months of flowering.

Soil. Slightly acidic soils are preferred, a pH of 5.5 -6.5 is ideal. There must be plenty of organic matter in the forms of old manures, compost, peat moss and if the copious amounts clay present, add gypsum and sharp river sand to break up the clay particles and improve the drainage. Note that chicken manure and mushroom compost are alkaline so avoid using these when planting camellias.

Planting. Do not plant camellias too deeply.  Cultivate the hole to at least twice the width of the pot but only to the same depth, keep the roots close to the surface of the hole. Never fertilise newly planted camellias.

Watering. This is where most beginners fail. Inadequate watering for the first few seasons is the biggest killer of camellias or cause of poor performance. Care for your camellias for at least the first 2 years and from there they should be happily established. Watering should be monitored during extended hot or dry weather. Keep moist but not wet.

Mulching. Being surface rooted mulching thickly is very important especially during the summer months to prevent the roots being exposed to extreme temperatures, drying out, heavy rainfall and competition from weeds. Various mulches can be used, tea tree, sugar cane, lucerne, leaf litter, bark and so on.

Fertilising. Newly planted camellias should not be fertilised at all until more established, at around 6 months. Established and more mature camellias can be fertilised with a high nitrogen or complete camellia and azalea fertiliser in August, make sure this is well watered in. This can be then followed up in summer with weak liquid fertiliser and then a fertiliser high in potassium and phosphorus in early autumn for improved flower colour and texture. 

Pruning and disbudding. Camellias are slow growing so lots of harsh pruning will only lose you growth time, just trim lightly to maintain shape and bushiness. For older bushes needing a heavier prune this should be done in Late July – August before the new growth comes through.

Disbudding what does this mean?
Camellias often set far too many buds for them to open them all properly due to there not being enough room.
If you take off – disbud – your camellia by at least half leaving maybe 2 or 3 buds per terminal you will then allow room for those few left to open properly and completely.


Camellia japonica ‘Desire’
Camellia japonica ‘Desire’

Of all the types of camellias probably the sasanqua and japonica are the most commonly and successfully grown in our climate along with a few selected reticulatas and several hybrids. There are always exceptions to the rule but even in these groups certain varieties do not perform well due to our humidity, heat or drought, which can cause dieback, root rot and poor performance in general.

Camellia sasanquas have smaller leaves and the flowers will fall a lot faster than the japonicas. In some countries they are bred especially to drop their petals quickly so as to form a beautiful carpet on the ground underneath each bush. They will have their floral display in autumn to early winter and will tolerate full sun to semi- shade. Use a lot for hedging and screening but can also be successfully used in espalier, bonsai and as specimen plantings.

Camellia japonicas are the showiest by far with the greatest selection of colours and flower forms, from intricate formal double blooms to blousy large peonies and even tiny miniature forms. A partially shaded position is preferred. The larger dark green leaves prefer protection from hot full positions and their stunning flowers need shelter from early morning sun which, in winter when there is dew on the buds or flowers will cause the flowers to be burned and stop buds from opening.

Camellia reticulatas generally do best if grafted, with the exception of Flower Girl, Show Girl and Dream Girl, this helps them tolerate our humid wet summers.

Camellia hybrids. Ones that appear to have proven to be performers are listed below. Most prefer a semi-shaded position with protection from early morning and hot western sun.

Recommended, easy to grow and popular varieties for subtropical climates

Camellia japonicas. 

Polar bear, Great Eastern, Debutante, Carter’s Sunburst, Margaret Davis, Emperor of Russia, Julia France, Red red rose, Drama girl, Elegans variegated, Paolina Maggi, Nancy Bird, Lady Loch, Lovelight, Prince Frederick William, Takanini.

Camellia sasanquas. 

Jennifer Susan, Setsugekka, Sparkling burgundy, Chansonette, Mine no Yuki, Gwen Pike, Queenslander, Rowena Gordon, Shell pink, Lucinda, Star above star, Bonanza, Shishigashira, Hiryu, Yuletide, Beatrice Emily.

Camellia reticulata. 

Flower girl, Dream girl, Show girl, Dr Clifford parks, Red Crystal, Ellie”s Girl, Lasca Beauty, Valentine Day

Camellia hybrids and species.

High fragrance, Gay Baby, Fragrant pink, Baby bear, Cinnamon cindy, Scentuous, Wirlinga Gem , Wirlinga Princess, Fairy Wand, Paradise Little Jen, Tiny Princess.

Camellia lutchuensis, Camellia rosiflora.

There are many, many more that do well in our climatic zone, these are just a few of the more readily available and easy to grow varieties and cultivars.


2 thoughts on “The Queen of the Winter Flowers – Camellias”

  1. You don’t state the name of your country so I am unable to follow your camellia recommendations. I live in the London area of the UK where I have been growing camellias since the early Sixties, currently:
    Marguerite Guillon
    R. L. Wheeler
    Adolphe Audusson
    Elegans Supreme
    Lady Vansittart
    Contessa Lavinia Maggi
    Dr. Bryan Doak
    A seedling of Berenice Boddy
    Rosea Optima
    Charles Hall

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