Camellia Plants & Flowers
Glossy green leaves, lovely blossoms, oil, and the invigorating beverage that spurred the American revolution all come from plants in the Camellia family.
Beautiful in a naturalized wooded setting, functional as a flowering formal hedge, and lovely as a focal centerpiece, camellias are evergreen shrubs and small trees that grow well in slightly acidic soils with lots of humus and good drainage.
Almost all camellia plants are happiest with plentiful water.
The genus Camellia of the family Theaceae was named by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, after Georg Joseph Kamel. A Jesuit botanist who worked in the Phillipines, it's unknown whether Kamel ever saw a camellia plant.
Englebert Kaempfer, who was Chief Surgeon to the Dutch East India Company and brought the first camellias to the west in 1692, referred to the camellia as "the Japan Rose" and noted it grew wild and in hedgerows in that country.
Camellias are native to southern and eastern Asia, from Indonesia north to Korea and west to the Himalaya Range.
Europeans most likely first saw camellia flowers represented on imported Chinese painted wallpapers, where the plants were often shown growing in porcelain pots.
The first living camellias were grown in England in 1739, when the avid gardener Lord Petre cultivated two of the shrubs, one red and one white, at Thorndon Hall in Essex.
Description and Characteristics
Steady-growing and lovely in all seasons, camellias are useful when grouped together as a hedge or planted singly as garden backdrops or centerpieces. The evergreen and glossy leaves are simple, thick and serrated.
Most camellia varieties have medium to large flowers that range from white to pink to red and stand out in high contrast to the deep green foliage. For a true yellow camellia flower, look to varieties of Camellia chrysantha.
In mild climates, camellias are some of the first flowers of spring, especially the many varieties of Camellia japonica also known as the Japanese, or common, camellia. Blooms may be dramatically single or extravagantly double. Double blossoms are shaped like full-blown tea roses or peonies.
Petals might be a solid color, speckled or variegated. Some have flowers with solid darker centers and a sharply contrasting border of pale pink or white. A pink striped Camellia japonica, like the April Dawn camellia, has especially striking flowers.
A late-winter/early-spring blooming variety for milder climates or sheltered spaces is the dwarf camellia or C. reticulata. Though a normally compact bush, dwarf camellias can grow to 20 feet or more if not regularly pruned. Dwarf camellias were originally cultivated in temple gardens in China's Yunnan province.
Some hybrid camellias are quite cold hardy. Crosses with C. oleifera as one parent, such as camellia April Tryst, are very tolerant of sub-zero temperatures. The Yuletide camellia plant of the C. sasanqua species is both cold tolerant and spectacular in bloom at Christmastime when everything else has gone dormant.
Cultivation and Care
With proper care, camellias can be planted any month of the year as long as the ground isn't frozen solid.
- Choose a site without a lot of competing shallow rooted plants or intense sun. Camellia sasanqua will do better in very sunny areas than other species.
- Dig a wide hole, at least 2 feet wider than the root ball.
- Don't loosen the dirt in the center of the hole. Camellias don't have tap roots, and this will prevent settling.
- Build a pedestal of dirt in the center of the hole and set the root ball on it. The top of the root ball should be just above the level of the hole.
- Hold the shrub straight and backfill the hole with the removed dirt. Add additional compost if needed.
- Build a ring of dirt and compost about 3 feet in diameter around the plant. This will help to retain water and keep mulch in place.
- Mulch with straw, bark or other organic matter.
- Water deeply and soak once a week during dry weather.
Diseases and Pests
Most camellia diseases are caused by fungi, but camellia yellow mottle is a virus infection with no cure. Symptoms include splotchy, mottled patterns on the leaves, and some leaves may turn completely yellow.
The flowers may also show white blotches if infected. This disease is spread by propagating infected plants and using infected root stock, so be sure to buy virus-free plants from reputable suppliers.
Fungal diseases of camellias include canker, flower blight, root rot and leaf gall. Prevention is the best course of action for all these infections.
Camellias love water, but so do fungus spores. Good drainage is critical for the healthiest plants. If signs of infection are found, early treatment with fungicides and strict sanitation might save the diseased plant and keep its neighbors healthy.
Insect infestations are generally limited to attacks by scale. Scale insects are unusual in appearance - they are tiny, immobile and have no visible legs. They attach to camellia leaves to feed, weakening the leaf and causing yellowing. If noticed early, the scales can be manually scraped off or the few infected leaves can be removed and destroyed.
Larger infestations can be treated with horticultural oil sprays, with insecticides as a last resort.
Not many people think of the camellia when sitting down to a cup of tea, but Camellia sinensis is the source for this popular drink. When a plant is three years old, the tea harvest can begin.
The top two or three leaves of each branch are picked and can be brewed immediately, left to wilt and ferment, or dried for brewing later.
The type of tea is classified by the levels of wilt and oxidation:
- White - unoxidized, wilted
- Yellow - unoxidized but allowed to yellow, unwilted
- Green - unoxidized, unwilted
- Oolong - partially oxidized, wilted, bruised
- Black - fully oxidized, wilted
- Post-fermented - unoxidized, unwilted, that is fermented or composted
Edible Oil and a Revolutionary Beverage
Camellia oil, also called tea oil and tea seed oil, is usually made by cold-pressing the seeds of C. oleifera though the seeds of C. japonica and C. sinensis might also be used. Edible and sweetly aromatic, the oil has a high smoke point and is excellent for frying.
Tea oil is the main cooking oil of the Hunan province of China. Like olive oil, it is high in monosaturated oleic acid. Camellia oil is used as a traditional hairdressing oil by sumo wrestlers, and is able to make a soap that lathers especially well.
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