March 30, 2009
Camelia Culture in Southern California
written by Mark J. Anthony Lasca Leaves 21:7-10, 1971
Yes, It is true, you may have camellias blooming in your garden nine months of the year if you select the correct varieties.
Starting in September, the beautiful, wild, roselike Camellia sasanqua with the willow-like branches starts bursting into bloom. Some of the finest members of this species include ‘Jean May,’ a compact grower with glossy, dark green foliage. It has large, shell pink, double blossoms, with better than average keeping qualities. ‘Narumi-Gata’ is a very large, fragrant, single, white variety, quite upright in its growth habits and excellent for covering a fence or arbor. ‘Rosy Mist,' with its large, single, delicate, soft pink flowers, is extremely prolific in its flowering. ‘Showa-No-Sakae’ is a low-spreading sasanqua that is fine to use as a ground cover. The semidouble to peony flowers of soft pink are admired by everyone. Sasanqua camellias can stand more sun than most other species of camellias and so can be used in more locations in the home garden.
A few of the Camellia japonica will start coming into bloom in September. ‘Yohei Haku,’ sometimes called ‘September Morn,’ is a white peony form with the early flowers showing a slight pink cast. Plant in full shade so the early flowers won’t burn. ‘Are-Jishi,’ a dark salmon-rose, full peony form, will also start coming into bloom in mid-September.
In October and November more sasanqua and japonica species will start blooming. Of the japonicas, the Daikagura family of red, pink sport ‘High Hat,’ variegated and white sport ‘Joshua Youtz,’ will start blooming nicely at this time. ‘Daitairin,’ the large, light rose pink single with the mass of petaloids in the center, will also bloom in November. The best formal white of all time is also an early bloomer. This is ‘Alba Plena.’ It will start blooming in November and continue all winter until the end of March. A relatively new camellia, ‘Mrs. Goodwin Knight,’ is also extremely early. Petals of a lovely, deep orchid-pink, form a large, loose peony flower. In a fairly sunny spot plant ‘Debutante’ for good pink peony-shaped flowers at this season.
In December more and more good flowers begin to show throughout Descanso Gardens. ‘Lucy Hester,’ ‘Laura Walker,’ ‘Richard Nixon,’ ‘Berenice Boddy,’ ‘C. M. Wilson,’ ‘Dr. John D. Bell’ and ‘Gigantea’ are among the best.
At the early camellia shows in December you can see camellias of all kinds blooming out of their normal season. These are flowers that have been treated with gibberellic acid to induce them to bloom as much as three months early. After the growth bud, next to a flower bud, has been removed, a drop of the acid solution is placed on the growth bud scar. Within thirty to forty-five days later the flower bud will burst into bloom; sometimes twice as large as normal.
In January and February hundreds of varieties of camellias burst into bloom at one time, and we say that late February is the height of the camellia season. ‘Pink Clouds,’ ‘Sunset Glory,’ ‘Kick Off,’ ‘Grand Slam,’ ‘Cardinal’s Cap,’ ‘Betty Sheffield’ and ‘Herme’ are good ones to plant for bloom at this season.
The Camellia reticulata adds to the array of flowers in March and April. These giants of the camellia world range from the beautiful, cherry red of ‘William Hertrich’ through many rose and pink varieties to the striking variegation of ‘Lion Head.’ For bushy plants and lots of large perfect flowers, plant reticulatas where they will have about one-half day of sun and lots of light. Camellias will still be blooming in your yard in April if you have such plants as ‘Te Deum,’ ‘Purity’ and ‘Blood of China.’ In May when I see Descanso Gardens' ‘Elena Nobile’ camellia plants in bloom I know that once more a camellia season has ended.
IN ORDER TO HAVE these flowers for nine months of the year a few thoughts about their care might be in order. Plant high in such a manner that they can grow high the rest of their lives. By this is meant that no peat moss or leaf mold should be under the plants that later can decay and allow them to settle. Set the ball of roots from the container about one-half inch high on good, solid ground and then fill in around the plant with a mixture of one-fourth leaf mold, one-fourth peat moss and one-half good soil. Planting high also provides the good drainage that is necessary for success. After the plant has been watered, a mulch of pine needles, bean straw or peat moss put around the plant helps to keep the roots cool. The sunnier the location, the heavier the mulch should be.
Camellias should be kept damp at all times; never allow them to become dry, winter or summer. Plants that are dry in the summer will drop flower buds in the fall and winter. If the buds do not drop from dry plants the flowers will be smaller than they ordinarily would he. In watering a plant that is in direct sunlight, care should be taken that water is never applied to the leaves when the temperature is over 92°. Large brown spots in the center of camellia leaves can be attributed to watering the foliage in direct sunlight. When the temperature is not over 92° always wash the leaves off after the plant has been watered at its base, as clean leaves make for healthy plants.
Winter is the best season of the year to transplant camellias but transplanting can also he accomplished successfully in June and July. After the first flush of new growth is over and the plant has hardened off, carefully shape a solid ball of soil around the plant’s roots, wrap the soil in burlap and move it to its new location. Be sure to replant it no lower than it was before. Water at once with a little Vitamin B-l added to the water. 1f the plant seems to wilt, cut a few inches off the terminal branches.
All camellia plants should have their first feeding about March 15th, or at the first sign of growth. The second is due May 15th and the last about August 15th. Use any good organic camellia fertilizer that is on the market. Spread under the plants at the rate of one heaping tablespoonful to each foot of camellia height. Follow with a very thorough watering. Be sure the material you use is of the organic type as it is less likely to burn. If your plants are large and growing profusely, one fertilizing may suffice.
Before applying a new mulch around camellias the old one should be removed. This accomplishes two things; first it gets rid of old flowers and petals that may be hiding in the mulch. This is very important as the camellia flower-blight lives over from year to year on decayed flower parts and the only way to eradicate this dreaded fungus disease is to keep your garden free from old flowers on the ground. The second thing accomplished is you keep the depth of the mulch from increasing around the plant. Camellia plants hate having a deep mulch around them as it cuts the air off from the roots and also keeps the trunk of the plant damp at all times thus inducing rot to set in. A one- to two-inch dressing of pine needles, oak leaves, peat moss or bean straw makes a very satisfactory mulch.
At this same time you might check the depth of your camellias. If the large roots are not within one-half inch of the surface of the ground, your plant is too deep. Remove all excess soil from under the plant until you come to the roots; then put a light mulch over the roots. Plants that are much too deep can be raised during the winter.
Some trimming of camellias can still be done if you have not already finished this job. The best time to trim is in March or April before the new growth appears. This way you do not disturb the next year’s crop of flowers. Always cut the branch back to a live bud or to the axil of another branch. Slant all large cuts away from you so the cut won't he seen by those viewing the plant. Paint all cuts larger than one-half inch with a good tree paint. Dead wood can be removed any time of the year. When the plant is spindly, but you do not wish to trim it very much, breaking off of the terminal growth buds will quite often force dormant buds to start growing.
CAMELLIAS GROWING in pots or tubs should he checked during the winter to make sure they have good drainage. Lay the plant on its side and reopen the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Container plants need only half the amount of fertilizer as those grown in the ground. If the plants have been in the same tubs for three or four years, this would he a good time to replant them in a size larger container. Those of you who are striving for large, extra fine flowers that will win a silver trophy at the camellia shows should start thinking of disbudding your plants in August. When thinning the buds take some of the large buds as well as some of the small ones. In this way you will spread the blooming season of the plant over a much longer time.
In July, seed pods start forming on some camellia plants. Ten or twelve pods will not harm the plant but if great numbers develop they should be removed as they can sap the strength of the plant or keep it from setting flower buds the following year. The pods that remain will he ripe in September and as they break open they should he planted in the ground immediately.
There are two methods of growing camellias from seed that work equally well. In both, the secret is to plant fresh seeds; that is, as soon after picking from the bush as possible.
The first method is to plant 8 or 10 seeds in a 6-inch flower pot of good garden soil that has about one-third leaf mold or peat moss added to it. If many seeds are planted, use an 8-inch deep box that has many drainage holes in the bottom and fill with the above soil mix. The seeds are placed an inch apart and covered with one-fourth inch of soil and leaf mold. After the plants are a year old, they can be taken up bare root and planted in the ground or in 6-inch pots or gallon cans.
The second method is to thoroughly wash with boiling water a pint or quart jar that has a large mouth. Next, boil enough peat moss in an old kettle to fill the jar. Squeeze out the extra water and after the seeds have been mixed with the peat, fill the jar with this mixture of seeds and peat.
Place somewhere that is warm in the kitchen and the heat will quickly cause the seeds to germinate. When the seed has sprouted and there is a white root about three-fourths inch long protruding from the seed, remove the seed from the jar and plant it in a seed box with a mixture the same as for dry seed. Water at once. Camellias in Southern California grow with a minimum of insect damage.
OUR BIGGEST PROBLEM has been in keeping the oak leaf roller from eating the young leaf buds of our reticulatas. The leaf rollers slide down their fine thread-like webs from the oaks above and work their way into the center of the reticulata growth buds just as they are starting to elongate. After they are inside the bud no amount of spraying seems to do any good. The best control is obtained by spraying all the oak trees in the vicinity with Sevin as soon as the first leaf roller appears in the oaks. If this does not kill all the leaf rollers a second spraying may be necessary.
For years scale insects gave camellia growers a lot of trouble, but, since water from the Colorado River came to Southern California, most of the scale disappeared as they could not stand the thin layer of salt on their outer coat every time the camellia plant was washed off. For those who do find a few scale on their plants, a 2% oil spray in the spring when the young scale are in a migratory stage will kill them. Never spray with oil when the temperature is over 85° and always have the soil around the plants wet before spraying.
Sometimes the margins of camellia leaves look as if they had been pinked with shears. This is most likely the work of the Fuller’s rose beetle, or the Brachyrhinus beetle. They are easily killed by dusting the soil underneath the plant and in the surrounding areas with Sevin dust, or granules. This will also kill other beetles that sometimes eat holes in the ends of camellia buds.
In May and June when camellias are in active growth, aphids will sometimes attack the new shoots. The damage they do is not great but they are liable to disfigure some of the leaves by taking the sap from the leaves. Wash them off with water, or better still spray them with Malathion or nicotine sulfate. Ants will bring aphids to your camellias so keep the ants away with a little Chlordane dusted around the plants.
Sometimes slugs will crawl up camellia plants and eat holes in the flower itself. Slug bait under the plant will kill them. As we stated before, camellias have very few insect problems and if you keep your plants washed off and clean at all times, they will have even less trouble.
For the past ten years Mark J. Anthony has been the Superintendent of Descanso Gardens and for many more a horticulturist with a special interest in camellias. He is a charter member of the Southern California Camellia Society.