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How to grow camellias

Val Bourne / 26 February 2016 ( 10 June 2020 )

Find out how to grow camellias, a colourful flowering shrub that does well in dappled light and is ideal for north-facing gardens.

Camellias are colourful shrubs from eastern and southeastern Asia

Camellias are evergreen woodland shrubs that bloom when little else is in flower, between autumn and late spring.

Best place to plant a camellia

Most spring-flowering camellias prefer neutral to acid soil (between pH 7 and pH 5) so those on chalky or alkaline soil will struggle. The leaves will become yellow in these conditions so – if you haven’t seen camellias growing in gardens near you, it probably means that they don’t thrive in your area.

However, do not despair because camellias make excellent long-term plants for containers as long as you use a loam-based acid compost which will hold moisture, such as John Innes Ericaceous.

Find out how to test your soil pH level

When to plant camellias

The best time to plant camellias is spring, when you can see the flowers, or in autumn. If you buy one in winter, keep it somewhere sheltered and plant it in spring.

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Where to plant camellias

Most camellias we grow are raised from four species Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua. Camellia saluensis and Camillia reticulate. These are understorey plants found growing under trees near the brighter edges of woods and forests, so it's best to plant them where they will get dappled light in your garden, preferably with overhead leafy shelter.

If you’re growing your camellia in a container find it a sheltered position, ideally on a north or west-facing wall. This will ensure that the early flowers do not get browned by frost which can easily happen on an cold east-facing wall where morning sun causes a quick thaw. Southern walls are generally too warm and dry.

They need a well-drained position and they will die in water-logged ground due to the lack of oxygen in the soil.

They like warm, not hot summers, with plenty of humidity and this is why they do so well in the south-western corner of Britain where summers are temperate and humid.

Find out what to plant underneath trees

Growing camellias in pots

Choose a large rugged pot, terracotta, wood or stone, and part fill with ericaceous compost and then add your plant and back fill so that the level of the pot is level with the soil.

Water well, preferably with water taken from a water butt. If you do use tap water, which tends to be alkaline, allow it to stand for a morning first.

Re-pot every other year into fresh potting compost. In the intervening years remove the top 5cm (2in) of compost and add fresh compost.

You can re-pot back into the same pot if you trim off up to a third of the roots to make room for fresh potting compost, or go up into a larger pot. This regime will keep your camellia happy.

Find out what to do with your old potting compost

Growing camellias in the ground

Camellias are fast-growing tap-rooted plants and the new growth can snap off in windy positions so staking is advisable for the first few years until the camellia plant becomes bushy. The shrubs do tolerate windy conditions however, once established, and are often used as windbreaks in gardens where they thrive.

How to plant camellias

Dig a hole twice the size of the pot and prepare a mixture of leaf mould, garden compost and some animal manure. If this isn’t possible use a loam based compost and add a slow release fertiliser such as Vitax Q4.

Take the plant out of the pot and loosen the root ball with your fingers.

Place the plant in the hole so that the top is level with the ground. Use a bamboo cane balanced on either side of the hole if you’re unsure.

Protect your new camellia tree from rabbits using chicken wire. They love them!

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Camellia shrub

Pruning camellias

Pruning camellias is best done lightly in spring after flowering, in April and May, and this is good practice with all evergreens. However pruning is not necessary! Leave it alone unless it’s got too large.

Growing from seed

In warm gardens camellias can set large seeds of hazel nut size inside quince-like fruits. Remove the brown seeds and push them into a pot filled with compost and grit, ensuring they are just below the surface. They will produce a plant within two years for most.

Feeding camellias

Feed camellias in spring and early summer with an acidic fertiliser. 

How fast do camellias grow?

Camellias grow at different rates depending on variety, with Japanese camillias growing slower. A Camellia sasangua will be about 2m high after 10 years.

Taking cuttings

The best time to take cuttings is between August and September.

Choose new growth and cut off a section of growth. Pull side shoots away so they have a heel - a ripped off end.

Pull off the lower leaves and trim the bottom of the cutting to get rid of the wispy end and dip the cuttings into hormone rooting powder.

Push the cuttings into a mixture of peat and sand and keep them in a warm place out of full sun – ideally the temperature should be 15C (65F).

Pot up rooted cuttings in the following spring.

Find out how to grow softwood cuttings

Pests and diseases

Rabbits can be a nuisance so protect young plants with chicken wire if they are a problem in your area.

Leaves can turn yellow for a number of reasons, most commonly down to a nutrient deficiency. As with all acid-loving plants they can suffer from a shortage of iron and manganese. Use acidic fertilisers and water with rain water to prevent this.

Camellia varieties

Camellia varieties clockwise from top left: Camellia × williamsii 'Jury's Yellow’ AGM, Camellia × williamsii 'Saint Ewe', Camellia × williamsii 'E.T.R. Carlyon' AGM, Camellia × williamsii ‘Waterhouse’

Camellia varieties

The williamsii Hybrids

Camellias didn’t become popular garden plants in Britain until after the 1930s when John Charles Williams, of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall, produced his Camellia x williamsii hybrids. Williams, who sponsored the plant hunter George Forrest, crossed Camellia japonica and Camellia saluenensis and produced hardier hybrids that flowered prolifically in British gardens. 

Other breeders followed Williams, using his hybrids, although they still bear the williamsii name. These are hardy, due to the Camellia japonica parentage, and form the backbone of British woodland gardens, because they are the easiest of all.

Camellia varieties

Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’
Probably the most well-known camellia ever raised, with semi-double orchid-pink flowers over a long period in spring. It forms a large bush of dense growth and the dark-green foliage is serrated. The original seeds for this hybrid were provided by J.C Williams - hence the name ‘Donation’. (Stephenson Clarke England 1941)

Camellia × williamsii ‘Debbie’ AGM
Deep rosy-pink, medium-sized, peony-like flowers on an upright, vigorous bush. Very free flowering over a long period, typically February and May. (Les Jury New Zealand 1966)

Camellia × williamsii 'Jury's Yellow’ AGM
An unfortunate name for this highly floriferous camellia is a warm shade of clotted-cream. It looks best in some shade and will bleach in full sun to a nasty white. A ring of petals surround a full middle of ruffled ‘petals’. (Les Jury New Zealand 1976)

Camellia × williamsii 'E.G. Waterhouse'
A vigorous camellia with light pink double flowers that blooms in March and April.

Camellia × williamsii 'Saint Ewe'
A large rounded camellia with large pink flowers.

Camellia Japonica 'Nobilissima' AGM
A double flowering white camellia with peony-form flowers.

Camellia × williamsii 'E.T.R. Carlyon' AGM
A large vigorous camellia with semi-double white flowers.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’ AGM
Fragrant, single red flowers in autumn and winter. This is considered one of the best autumn-flowering camellias.

Did You Know...?

Camellias have been grown in Chinese and Japanese gardens for centuries. Ten thousand named camellias are known in Japan alone.

Camellias came to Europe when the tea trade began in the 17th and 18th centuries. Camellia sinensis is the main plant used to produce tea.

Decorative camellias came to Britain in the 19th century. Camellia sasanqua, an autumn-flowering camellia, arrived in 1811 and Camellia reticulata was introduced to the UK by Captain Richard Rawes, an employee of the Dutch East India Company, in 1820.

They were originally thought to be too tender for British gardens, so they were grown in greenhouses and orangeries on wealthy estates. When they outgrew their space they proved hardy enough for outdoor cultivation. However the British climate was not warm enough to produce much flower on the Japanese and Chinese varieties because they needed warmer summers and cool winters.

For more growing guides for flowers, trees and shrubs visit our plants section

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