Camellias are popular evergreen shrubs that produce a beautiful display of flowers during late winter and early spring, when little else is in flower in the garden. There are thousands of varieties to choose from, with white, pink or red flowers, which can either be single or double. Their shiny, evergreen leaves look great all year round.
Whichever variety you choose, you need to get the soil conditions right. Camellias need to grow in acidic soil. If you don’t have this type of soil in your garden, many varieties are happy growing in pots of ericaceous (acidic) compost.
Camellias also do best in a partially shaded spot in your garden, sheltered from wind.
Growing camellias: jump links
- When and where to plant camellias
- How to plant camellias
- How to plant a camellia in a pot
- How to care for camellias
- Problem solving
Camellia: plant profile
Botanical name: Camellia sinensis
Common name: Camellia
Plant type: Shrub, evergreen
Flower colours: Pink, white, red
Plant in: October-November
Flowers in: January-April
Prune in: April-May
Sun exposure: Full sun, dappled shade
Soil type: Well-drained / light / sandy / acidic
Wildlife: Camellia ‘Crimson King’ is known for attracting bees
Toxicity: No toxic effects reported
Preferred growing conditions vary slightly depending on the variety of camellia.
How to grow camellias
The two main things to remember is that camellias need to grown in acidic soil, in partial shade. If you don’t have acidic soil in your garden, you can make it more acidic, or grow camellias in pots.
When and where to plant camellias
Camellias are best planted in autumn, when the soil is still warm and the roots have plenty of time to establish before winter. You can plant a camellia in a pot in spring. Buying a camellia in flower lets you choose exactly the colour you want.
Camellias prefer a position that is in dappled or full shade. An area that gets morning shade is best as direct sun in the morning can dry out the developing flower buds too quickly. Camellias are woodland plants and do not cope well in a sunny, south facing spot.
Choose a sheltered spot – camellias do not thrive in exposed, windy spots.
How to plant camellias
Camellias need acid or ericaceous soil, with a pH of 5.5-6.5. If the pH is neutral in your area, you can make it more acidic by adding composted bracken (available mail order), homemade leaf mould or composted pine needles to the planting hole, then mulching with them too. You can also mulch with ericaceous compost or bark chippings after planting.
In this video, Monty Don demonstrates how to plant a camellia in neutral soil:
How to grow a camellia in a pot
Camellias grow well in pots and this is a good option if you don’t have acidic soil in your garden. Use a soil-based, peat-free ericaceous compost mix and a pot that is at least 30cm wide.
Before you start, water the camellia thoroughly (ideally with rainwater) in its original pot. Ensure the roots are fully saturated and allow to drain. Move your intended pot to its final position before planting it up as it may become heavy.
Make sure there are plenty of holes in the base of your pot and add crocks to improve drainage. Fill your pot about two-thirds full with ericaceous compost, leaving enough room for your plant.
Make a hollow in the compost big enough for your camellia’s rootball and place it in the pot.
Position the plant centrally in the pot with the top of its rootball about 5cm below the rim. Fill in around the roots with compost and push down with your fingers. Water well and allow to drain.
Camellias are slow-growing plants so don’t need to be repotted often, but it’s best to do this before the plant gets visibly pot bound. Repot in spring, into fresh compost.
How to care for camellias
You can deadhead camellia flowers as they begin to turn brown to prevent the plant looking unsightly. However, deadheading is not necessary to promote new flowers.
Water camellias with rainwater, if possible. This is particularly important in hard water areas with high calcium deposits in the tap water, which can affect the acidity of the soil. If you have no option, use tap water – it’s important to keep camellias well watered in summer, between July and September, as this is when next year’s flower buds are formed.
If you’re growing camellias in the right conditions, they don’t need feeding unless they’re showing signs of ill-health. Plants will perk up quickly after a feed. Don’t feed too much in summer – this can cause bud drop.Good quality bark mulch in spring will give the plant a boost and act as a soil conditioner.
Camellias don’t need pruning to promote flowering. However, some varieties can grow up to 5m in height if left unpruned. So if your space is limited, prune for height and shape as soon as possible after flowering.
Although camellias were at first considered tender plants, and were traditionally grown in greenhouses, they’re in fact quite hardy. However, frost and snow can damage flower buds and flowers so it’s best to cover plants with fleece according to the weather forecast, or, if your camellia is in a pot, move it into a greenhouse.
How to propagate camellias
If you’re looking to make more plants of your favourite camellia, they can be propagated by taking semi-ripe cuttings, hardwood cuttings, layering and grafting. Although camellias do sometimes produce seed, they’re hard to germinate, take years to mature and won’t breed true.
Growing camellias: problem solving
Brown flower buds can be caused by frost damage or snow, especially if it is followed by morning sun. If a cold spell is forecast, or you live in a cold part of the country, you could cover your plant with fleece. If your plant is in an east-facing spot, you could consider moving it to a part of the garden that does not get morning sun.
If camellia flowers do not open, it could also be due to frost damage. Direct sun in the morning can also dry out the developing flower buds too quickly, drying the outer petals and preventing the flowers from opening.
Brown patches on camellia flower petals are caused by camellia flower blight. It is caused by a fungus, Coborinia camelliae. Although the effects are similar to frost damage, with blight, the whole flower is affected, with flecks on the petals, and they will drop early. There’s no chemical solution so remove any affected blooms as quickly as possible and clear away any dead leaves and debris from the base of the plant. Bin or burn them to prevent further contamination – do not add to the compost heap.
Yellowing leaves are caused by lime-induced chlorosis. It’s due to high alkalinity in the soil and means the plant isn’t getting enough iron. If your camellia is in a pot, repot into fresh ericaceous compost and give the plant a feed with ericaceous plant food. If it’s in the ground, add a layer of leaf mould, composted bracken or composted pine needles and treat with a product that contains chelated iron or sequestered iron.
Sooty mould on the surface of the leaves is called by leaf scale insects that stick like limpets to the undersides of the leaves. Use a soft soap solution, formulated specifically for plants, to wipe off the insects and the mould.
Watch our Quick Tips video with Kevin Smith, who explains why camellia leaves can become sticky:
A lack of flowers in spring can be caused by poor growing conditions the previous summer, when the flower buds are formed. Drought can prevent bud formation, so be sure to water well in summer. Also be sure to feed with an ericaceous fertiliser and mulch to keep the roots moist. Here, Lucy Hall explains why camellias might not flower:
Camellias to grow
- Camellia ‘Water Lily’ – an upright growing camellia, with formal double, deep pink flowers with a rich fragrance from February through to April
- Camellia ‘Cornish Snow’ RHS AGM – a compact camellia, bearing masses of small, fragrant, single white flowers with bright yellow stamens from February through to April
- Camellia x williamsii ‘Contribution’ – has semi double pink flowers with bright yellow stamens. The x williamsii hybrids are the toughest and easiest camellias to grow
- Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’ RHS AGM – a fast-growing dense upright shrub with large single bright red fragrant blooms, with masses of bright yellow stamens. Sasanqua varieties are among the earliest flowering camellias, with first blooms appearing in October
- Camellia ‘Quintessence’ – a compact, slow-growing variety that makes a good choice for smaller sheltered gardens. The white single flowers are also sweetly scented