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Plant Focus - Camellias

New Zealand has an ideal climate for growing Camellias because the minimum temperatures are similar to those of the Camellia's homeland in Asia. Here are some interesting facts about growing Camellias:

Growing Conditions

  • Camellias begin flowering in late February in Auckland, continuing through to October and in the cooler areas of the North Island and the South Island from May through to November
  • Camellias should be protected from strong winds and hot sun, particularly morning sun that will burn delicate flowers covered with dew
  • Best garden positions are south or south-east facing
  • Filtered sunlight under trees is ideal
  • Sasanquas will take full sun in temperate climates but it is important that the soil doesn't dry out
  • Don't plant Camellias too close to walls or they may not get enough water from natural rainfall - particularly import when espaliering and a simple drip irrigation line is very useful
  • The best soil is rich, deep, full of organic matter and slighly acidic
  • Mulch Camellias with an organic mulch approximately 75cm deep, taking care to pull mulch away from the stems
  • Iron and Magnesium deficiency are two soil based problems when the soil is too alkaline - symptoms of both deficiencies are similar and include a yellowing of the leaves (chlorosis). Apply Magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) and regularly apply a slow-release Camellia fertiliser for balanced growth.
  • Well drained, moist soil is very important. 
  • In heavy, clay soils raise the planting level by 50mm using a garden mix and organic matter. Camellias are surface rooting plants so this can really help growth.

Sizes and Growth Rates

  • Japonicas are slow growing and will eventually grow to 6-9 metres (after 30 years!) but are readily controlled by pruning.
  • Reticulatas are slow growing but can in time reach 10 metres.
  • Sasanquas are very fast growing to a height of 2-3 metres (generally 4 years from a 2.5L pot) and are great as an easy-care, fast growing hedge with beautiful flowers.

Pruning

  • Many Camellias are 'straggly' when young and pruning or tipping can help improve density. Cut some of the branches back to a bud just above the beginning of last seasons growth.
  • If a Camellia is very old and overgrown, branches can be cut back hard to the trunk in spring before new growth has started - but don't expect it to flower for 2-3 years and take care to leave the branch collar intact (the ridge of bark where the branch joins the trunk).
  • If your garden is small, keep your Camellia to size by 'tipping' new growth in spring with your fingertips.
  • The best time prune and train Camellias for espaliers is after flowering and before the new growth starts - Sasanquas are the best but any variety can be trained

Hedges

  • Camellias, and particularly Sasanquas make great hedges.
  • Typically plant at 1 metre trunk spacing.
  • Clip with hedge clippers and remember a formally clipped hedge will have fewer flowers.

Flowers

  • Camellias (particularly Japonicas) often produce too many buds, resulting in stunted, misshapen flowers, so removing some of the buds allow the remaining flowers to develop into big, healthy blooms.
  • Aim to leave 1-2 buds per cluster, both big and small so they don't flower at the same time.
  • This will only be required if there are more than 3 buds in the bud cluster.
  • Types of flowers include single, semi-double, formal double, anemone form, peony form and rose double form.

Pests and Diseases

  • Generally free of pests and diseases.
  • May suffer from Phytophthora in wet, waterlogged soils - symptoms include yellowing of leaves in warmer weather, followed by wilting and withering of branches.
  • Petal blight is a fungal disease that causes brown spots that spread, resulting in a brown mess. Don't allow diseased flowers to rot on the ground.
  • Occasionally aphids will attack young shoots but these can be hosed off or controlled by a Pyrethrum spray.
  • Scale insects can be controlled by a white oil and systemic insecticide.