How to care for Camellias

Camellias are long-lived trees and shrubs that provide year-round glossy-green foliage and cool-season flowers. Cultivars of Camellia japonica (Japonicas) and Camellia sasanqua (Sasanquas) are the most grown types of camellias.

While they will do fine if left alone, camellias will truly thrive when provided with appropriate growing conditions, timed pruning and fertilizing, and good garden hygiene.

  • Soil: Camellias need slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5-6.5); they don’t grow well in soils with a high pH and will exhibit signs of stress, including yellowing leaves, if the soil is alkaline.
  • Moisture: Camellias do not tolerate wet feet; it’s essential that you site them in an area with well-drained soil.
  • Light:  In general, camellias grow and bloom better in partial shade (morning sun and dappled afternoon shade are ideal conditions) with shelter from hot afternoon sun. This is especially true for young plants, which thrive under the shade of tall trees or when grown on the north side of a house. As they grow larger and their thick canopy of leaves shades and cools their roots, they gradually will accept more sun. Shade provided in winter helps reduce cold damage for camellias growing in zones 6 and 7.
  • Soil: Camellias need slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5-6.5); they don’t grow well in soils with a high pH and will exhibit signs of stress, including yellowing leaves, if the soil is alkaline.
  • Moisture: Camellias do not tolerate wet feet; it’s essential that you site them in an area with well-drained soil.
  • Light:  In general, camellias grow and bloom better in partial shade (morning sun and dappled afternoon shade are ideal conditions) with shelter from hot afternoon sun. This is especially true for young plants, which thrive under the shade of tall trees or when grown on the north side of a house. As they grow larger and their thick canopy of leaves shades and cools their roots, they gradually will accept more sun.

Planting Timing is critical when planting camellias. Gardeners in warm areas (zones 8-10) can plant in the fall, winter, or spring. To plant, dig a hole that is twice as wide as the root ball and just as deep. Then backfill the bottom two to three inches of the hole and pack it down. Remove the plant from the container and place it in the center of the hole. The top of the root ball should be 2-4 inches above grade. Camellias do not grow well when planted too deep and, in fact, are more sensitive than other plants, so this is an important detail to follow. Fill in around the plant, gently sloping the soil up the sides of the exposed root ball. Do not cover the tops of the root ball. Mulch around the plant, with just a thin layer (1 inch) over the top of the root ball. Water at the time of planting.

Watering As with other broad-leafed shrubs, camellias need to be watered when newly planted or during times of extreme drought. Established plants (over 3 years old, vigorous, and shading their own roots) get by with little supplemental water. If you do water them, make sure the soil is well drained.

Fertilizing Feed with an acid-forming azalea or camellia fertilizer in spring, after the flowers have dropped; fertilize again in the midsummer if growth seems sluggish or foliage looks sparse and begins to lose its deep green color (take care to water the plants the day before feeding in summer).  Select a fertilizer specifically blended for camellias or azaleas. Apply at the rate recommended on the label. Don’t overdo it, as plants grown in fertile soil need little fertilizer―and never feed plants that are sick or distressed. Do not fertilize after August, as the plants will be entering a period of dormancy. Fertilizer could cause unwanted growth without enough time to harden off before cold weather. 

Pruning Prune after blooming has ended. Remove dead or weak wood; thin outgrowth when it is so dense that flowers have no room to open properly. Shorten lower branches to encourage upright growth; cut back top growth to make lanky shrubs bushier. When pruning, cut just above a scar that marks the end of the previous year’s growth (often a slightly thickened, somewhat rough area where bark texture and color change slightly). Making your cuts just above this point usually forces three or four dominant buds into growth. 

Source:   NC State Extension.