Planting and growing camellias in North Carolina, Part I

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By Shirley Waggoner-Eisenman
Brunswick County Master Gardener

Camellias bloom in late fall, winter and early spring when few other plants do. They have beguiled southern landscapes for more than 100 years.
Camellias are usually thought of as a Southern plant; they have been adapted to extend as far north as Long Island, N.Y. They can generally withstand winter temperatures as low as 10 degrees, so they can be grown anywhere if you protect them and keep the roots from freezing. They are shallow rooted, like the shade, and do the best in loose, fertile soil that is slightly acid. They do not like poor drainage.
There are three species of camellias in general cultivation in the United States:
•Camellia japonica is the hardiest of the three species. It is the best species for planting along the Atlantic Coast, north of the District of Columbia. It has glossy leaves, blooms late winter through early spring.
•Camellia sasanqua is almost as hardy as the japonica; its northern limit of hardiness along the Atlantic Coast is the District of Columbia. It has glossy leaves, blooms in October and November.
•Camellia reticulata is the tenderest of the camellias commonly grown in the United States. It can be grown outdoors in southern California or in the Deep South, but in other areas, it needs indoor protection during the winter months. It has dull, green leaves, and blooms in the spring.
Before buying a camellia plant, be sure the variety you purchase is adapted to your area. Most plants will be offered for sale in a container or a burlap-wrapped ball of soil around the roots. Mail order nurseries sell bare-rooted plants. Purchase plants that are at least two years old; plants of this age are 18-24 inches tall.
Be sure the plant is healthy; inspect for wounds, scars, insects and diseases. Grafted plants may have a swollen area near the base of the main stem; this is not a sign of poor health.
Choose plants that have the best shape and the freshest, greenest foliage. If you select the plant with the greatest number of healthy leaves, you probably will get the best root system and a healthy plant.
Fall is usually the best time for planting camellias. Select a planting site that provides alternate sunshine and shade in summer, some shade in winter and protection from winter winds. Planting under a tall pine tree or on the north side of a building can provide these conditions.
Mature camellias spread 8-10 feet in diameter. Set plants at least six feet apart; this allows space for future growth. When using them as a hedge, plant them 5-7 feet apart; this will provide a compact hedge when the plants are fully-grown.
If soil is well drained, dig planting holes for your camellias. If soil is heavy and drainage not good, set the plants on mounds. The hole should be twice the width and depth of the root ball.
Refill the hole slightly more than half full with good soil. Firm the soil to provide a base for the plant. If root ball is firm, you may remove the burlap before setting in the hole; if the ball is loose, cut the twine and fold back the burlap.
Do not knock the root ball from the container; you may injure the roots; cut the container away. The depth you plant the camellia should be the same as it was before transplanting. One of the most common causes of plant failure is planting too deep.
Apply mulch after planting and maintain it continuously. Mulching reduces fluctuation in soil temperatures, conserves soil moisture, and helps prevent weeds from growing. Mulch should be 2-3 inches deep over the root zone.
Normal rainfall usually provides enough moisture for mulched camellias; however, during droughts, the plants should be watered at weekly intervals. When watering, soak the ground thoroughly. Attention should be given to providing adequate water during the time of budding.
Camellias may need light fertilizing during the first growing season. Apply in spring when the plants begin their new growth. After the first growing season, organic matter usually furnishes enough nutrients to the plants.
Over-fertilizing is a common practice and promotes loose, open growth that spoils the compact habit of the plant. Over-fertilizing also increases the susceptibility for winter injury. Do not fertilize after July 1. Do not use lawn fertilizer on camellias; these fertilizers are often alkaline.
Camellias grow best in acid soil. If soil is too alkaline, acidity must be increased. If the soil is not acid enough, the leaves will turn yellow and the plant will have slow growth, even if it has been adequately fertilized and watered.
Camellias grow well without pruning. You may want to prune to remove dead, injured, or diseased branches, or to reduce the size of the plant. The best time to prune is after the plant has bloomed.
For more information on camellias, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.