Camellia: tips for planting, care & overwintering

Virginia
Virginia
Virginia
Virginia

I study plant biotechnology and often find myself confronted with the serious consequences that lack of knowledge and misinformation can have for nature. That is why I am so passionate about bringing people and nature closer together again.

Favourite fruit: raspberries, strawberries and pineapple
Favourite vegetables: courgettes, broccoli and cucumbers

Camellia is a beautiful and graceful ornamental plant. Everything you need to know about proper planting and care can be found here.

Pink camellia flowers
Camellias are enticing with their lush and colourful flowers [Photo: Tooykrub/ Shutterstock.com]

Camellia (Camellia) belongs to the tea shrub family (Theaceae) and is popular with many gardeners because of the beauty of its lush and colourful flowers. However, in gardening circles the opinion that the camellia is difficult to keep often prevails. Let us explain this and tell you how to help the camellia achieve its potential.

Camellia: origin and meaning

According to tradition, the camellia was cultivated more than 4000 years ago in the area of modern China. At that time, the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) was mainly cultivated to obtain green tea or the subsequently fermented black tea from its leaves. Camellia reached Europe at the beginning of the 16th century and advanced to an extremely popular garden plant from the 18th century. However, the real reason for importing the plants was initially different. Europeans wanted to make their own tea. However, knowing the great economic importance that camellia had for the Chinese, they often declared ornamental camellias as tea plants to protect their monopoly on the tea market at that time.

Tea plant with white flower
Camellia sinensis is cultivated for the production of tea [Photo: Tharnapoom Voranavin/ Shutterstock.com]

The camellia gained worldwide fame in 1848 when Alexandre Dumas published his novel “Lady of the Camellias”. It then received its crown in 1853, when the story of the French writer was set to music in the opera “La Traviata” by Guiseppe Verdi. After a brief heyday, the camellia then fell silent for a long time, not least due to the decline of the aristocracy, among whom the plant was particularly popular. Since the 1940s, however, the camellia once again enjoyed increased attention. Today there are over 20,000 species, and flowering and winter hardiness are the decisive criteria in choosing the perfect variety for your own garden.

Camellia flowering period: when does the camellia bloom?

The flowering time of camellias depends on their location, as well as on their condition. Outdoors, most species bloom between March and April. Potted plants exhibit a somewhat broader temporal spectrum. Depending on the time of planting and the species or variety, the time of flowering can vary between December and February.

Pink double-petalled camellia flower
“Debbie” camellias flower from February to April [Photo: Romix Image/ Shutterstock.com]

Camellia japonica and other camellia species

According to experts, the camellia is represented by more than 250 species worldwide. We introduce you to some of the most popular species and describe the specific features of these Asian beauties.

Camellia japonica (common camellia)

  • Best known and most widespread camellia wild species; many cultivars of this species available; unfortunately, no hardy varieties; flower colour varies from pink-red to yellow to bright white
White double-petalled camellia flower
The flowers of “Matterhorn” camellia are double petalled [Photo: atiger/ Shutterstock.com]

Camellia sasanqua

  • Many varieties available; autumn flowering camellia (from October); Flowers exude a light fragrance and tolerate a lot of sun; not hardy
Sasanqua camellia with pink flowers
Camellia sasanqua are not hardy [Photo: Ken Kojima/ Shutterstock.com]

Camellia sinensis (tea plant)

  • Originally grown for green and black tea; nevertheless have high ornamental value; one of the oldest cultivated species with countless varieties

In addition to the conventional varieties, a wide range of camellia-hybrids now exists. The novel blends offer innovative colours and shapes in many ways, and some are even a bit more robust when it comes to lower temperatures.

White and yellow camellia flowers
“Jury’s Yellow” has double white flowers [Photo: Del Boy/ Shutterstock.com]

For more on the diversity of the camellia world, check out our extensive variety article with over 80 great camellia varieties here.

A camellia flower bud
The flower buds can indicate the health and later flowering fullness of your camellia [Photo: Ian Grainger/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting camellias: location and substrate

Despite their meagre winter hardiness, camellias are not houseplants – at least not all year around. We explain how you can create especially good conditions for your camellia.

Location

Camellias thrive best planted in a pot in a cool conservatory (between 13 and 16 °C during flowering). If you want to plant your camellia outdoors, you should choose a location that is protected from the wind and be aware that too much sunlight on the frozen leaves in winter may well cause damage or even death to the plant. Camellia prefers semi-shaded places. However, it is worth exposing a camellia planted in a container to increased sunlight in the summer to encourage bud formation.

A potted camellia plant
Potted camellias can stay outside until it gets frosty [Photo: MaryAbramkina/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: Experts advise spring planting camellia. This means that you may skip the flowering in the first growing season, but the plant can establish itself well and shine all the more colourful the next year.

Camellias in pots: appropriate substrate

Camellia makes similar demands on its planting substrate as rhododendrons. A well-drained substrate that is slightly acidic is best suited here. Preferably use humus-rich potting soil with an increased peat content to meet the ‘moor’ bed requirements of camellias.

Caring for camellias

Camellia, as far as its care is concerned, makes relatively few demands on its owners, if all the conditions are right. It is happy to receive regular watering. However, you should avoid waterlogging as much as possible, otherwise it can quickly lead to root rot and mould. In addition, it is necessary to fertilise your camellia regularly during late spring to late summer. To do a favour not only to your camellias, but also to Mother Earth in general, you should choose a primarily organic fertiliser such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food. This gives nutrients to your plants with a slow-release formula. In this way, the risk of overfertilisation is minimised and long-term supply is promoted. You will also support healthy soil life, which is especially important in a space-constrained pot, while also saving valuable resources.

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In addition to regular watering and fertilising, high humidity also plays an important role in making your camellia feel completely at home. You can learn even more about fertilising camellias in our special article.

Tip: Make sure that the water used for watering is not too “hard”, that is, not too calcareous, so that the acidic conditions in the plant substrate are not affected too much. Rainwater is particularly suitable because it contains little to no minerals.

For more information on caring for camellias, see our dedicated article.

Repotting camellias

The unusual life cycle of camellias is only one reason why they show exceptionally strong root growth. Therefore, in order for your camellia to develop its magnificent flowers every year, you should repot it regularly.

When to repot camellias

The perfect time to repot can not be determined across the board. An important indicator that tells you it is time for a bigger container is roots emerging at the surface of the soil. This is a sign that these roots must give way to others in order to continue to access nutrients. Even regular fertilisation and adequate watering can not counteract this.

Pruning camellias

Camellias usually require pruning infrequently. Usually it is quite enough to remove weaker wild shoots. Major pruning is recommended only for older plants. However, you should be careful to prune in steps over several years, so as not to remove too much of the plant at once. Generally, cut off only small parts of the shoots, as resprouting may take a long time. The best time for camellia pruning is May to July.

Camellia tree full of flowers
Camellia trees rarely need pruning [Photo: TinasDreamworld/ Shutterstock.com]

Detailed instructions on the ideal methods for pruning camellia can be found here.

Overwintering

To enjoy your camellia for many years, you should provide it with suitable winter quarters. We’ll show you what’s necessary for successful overwintering.

Are camellias hardy?

In general, camellias are not hardy. There are reports of isolated success where camellias have endured temperatures as low as -15 °C without losing their ability to flower. However, this is the absolute exception. You can somewhat influence the winter hardiness of camellias by trying to create optimal external conditions.

Snow-covered camellia flower bud
For overwintering in the garden to work, the location is of utmost importance [Photo: shark girl/ Shutterstock.com]

The location for this should be protected from the wind and not be subject to large temperature fluctuations in winter. Therefore, a half-shaded location is ideal. In addition, an insulating layer of bark mulch, brushwood, leaves or similar material should protect the delicate root system. Breeders are currently very interested in developing hardy varieties, so that camellias will soon be able to survive outdoors all year around.

Overwintering camellias in a pot

The camellia needs a resting period of about eight weeks in winter if it is kept as a container plant. The temperature should be between 5 and 15 °C and humidity should be about 60 %. However, the temperature should never rise above 15 °C, otherwise the camellia may begin to shed its buds due to dry air.

Camellia bush in a greenhouse
The ideal environment for overwintering camellias is a bright and cool greenhouse or conservatory [Photo: Sarycheva Olesia/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: Leave your camellia outside as long as possible to minimise the period of extreme change in conditions.

More about overwintering camellia and hardy varieties can be found here.

Camellia diseases

Unfortunately, your beloved camellias can also be attacked by a variety of pests and pathogens. These include pests such as scale insects or the black vine weevil, but also fungal pathogens.

Camellia bud with browning petals
Camellia can appear unhealthy for numerous reasons [Photo: Diamond Bitzer/ Shutterstock.com]

Everything you need to know about camellia diseases, as well as how to successfully combat them, can be found here.

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