In The Northern Hemisphere some of our most exotic shrubs are producing their ravishing blooms. Camellias, with their glossy, dark evergreen leaves and flamboyant flowers are never shy to risk the vagaries of the spring weather. Closely related to the tea plant, the camellia is truly the Queen of Shrubs. She has inspired literature and music for centuries. Verdi’s opera La Traviata is based on La Dame aux Camelias, a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas.
Camellias are woodland plants, originating from eastern Asia. When introduced into cultivation in Europe around 740 their exotic appearance and distant origins led experts to believe that they were delicate creatures, unable to survive outdoors. They were therefore confined and suffocated in the stifling ‘stove’ houses of the day. Gardeners soon realised that these were not delicate hothouse plants but sturdy individuals that were happiest in cold conservatories. Today they’ve made their way into the garden at large, but their beginnings as pot subjects underlines their suitability for growing in containers.
In temperate regions gardeners have embraced the camellia as a favourite hardy evergreen shrub. When you see mature specimens growing in grand gardens it is clear to see the potential of these shrubs as long term garden features, if space permits. The camellia is a long-lived shrub, so could be something that you choose to plant for your grandchildren as you might plant a cedar or an oak. However, even as young plants camellias have huge appeal and will produce ravishing blooms on the smallest plants.
Camellias also suit today’s much smaller gardens. Their elegant glossy, evergreen leaves look good throughout the year. They are happy, and will still bloom in shade: often a challenge in small gardens. In fact early morning shade is important to prevent the sun’s rays from shattering frozen flowerbuds. Although they have the potential to grow large they can be pruned and shaped after flowering formally or informally. They can be trained as wall shrubs where they will get shelter and their blooms will be displayed to advantage. Habit varies according to variety; the more compact forms make wonderful subjects for pots.
If you have acid soil and semi-shade then grow them in the open ground. No special treatment required, just make sure that they never dry out completely as young plants. Like most ericaceous subjects, camellias are light feeders and require only a light annual application of a lime free ericaceous fertiliser to keep them in peak condition.
Not all gardeners are lucky enough to have suitable soil; then grow your camellia in a pot. Use a large enough containers, at least 40cm (16”) in diameter and 30cm (12”) or more deep. Always put good drainage in the bottom of the pot; raise the pot slightly off the ground using pot feet or pieces of tile to prevent waterlogging. For best results use ericaceous loam-based compost, this holds water and nutrients more efficiently because of the loam content.
Watering is vital and some will recommend rain water. That’s great if you’ve got it, but believe me, a dry camellia will be glad of any water; drought is one thing a camellia will not tolerate. Camellias have tight, fibrous root systems that can be difficult to wet once they get dry. If a camellia is allowed to dry out in summer it will respond by firstly shedding its buds, then its leaves.
The commonest problem with camellias is Europe is brown scale which manifests itself as black sooty deposits on the leaves taking away all vitality and gloss. The sooty mould is a secondary infection of the sticky excretion of scale insects. These you will find lurking as tiny brown bumps along the underside of the leaf midrib. Because of their tough outer coat, and strong attachment to the leaf, they are difficult to dispose of. Scale can be controlled using an insecticide such as Neudorff’s bug and larvae killer which is organic.
The glorious blooms of the Camellia appear at a time when many shrubs are just sticks, how good do your roses look in late winter? The flowers are produced over a long period and will tolerate the cold, as long as early sun does not caress the frozen blooms. The foliage is perhaps the most handsome of the plain evergreens and the growth habit usually tidy and compact. For a modest investment you can own one of these exquisite beauties that, if shown just a little care and appreciation, will delight you every spring for the rest of your life.
If you're interested in learning more about growing shrubs including the camelias mentioned in this article - please take a look at our online shrubs in garden design course