Ferguson: Camellias can provide color in both fall and winter

Published 1:06 pm Friday, December 10, 2021

Camellias are popular sources of color in fall and winter gardens in the southeastern U.S. Most of the camellias blooming now, in late fall, are sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua). These have smaller leaves and, generally, smaller flowers than Japanese camellias (C. japonica) but often have an abundance of blooms. Young stems of sasanquas have fine hairs, while those of Japanese camellias are smooth.

Sasanquas are more resistant than Japanese camellias are to Phytophthora root rot, which sometimes affects camellias, particularly when they’re grown in wet areas. In fact, many Japanese camellias are grafted onto sasanqua rootstock.

The sasanqua camellia variety “Leslie Ann” was named a Louisiana Super Plant for 2015. Flower petals are predominantly white, with pink along the edges. “Leslie Ann” grows to about eight feet tall and four to five feet wide.

ShiShi Gashira (“Shishigashira”) is another camellia that’s been named a Super Plant. This variety is often grouped with sasanquas, but some identify it as a different species, C. hiemalis. ShiShi Gashira has dark pink flowers. It can reach about four to five feet tall and wide but more commonly stays about three feet tall, so it can be used where a relatively low-growing evergreen shrub is desired.

Perhaps the most well-known camellia species is the Japanese camellia. When all varieties are taken into consideration, flowering may occur any time between late fall and early spring, but blooms are generally most abundant between late January and mid-March.

Japanese camellias can grow to approximately 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, but height and width of eight and five feet, respectively, are more common.

There are many, many Japanese camellia varieties. Flower colors include red, pink, white, and combinations of these. Some are variegated. Flower types — based on number and arrangement of petals and other flower parts — include single, semi-double, anemone form, peony form, rose form double, and formal double.

Although it doesn’t provide flowers as spectacular as those of the other mentioned species, the tea plant (C. sinensis) is also a camellia. Flowers of the tea plant generally appear in fall, have white petals, and are about 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter.

While just four are mentioned here, there are many more species of in the Camellia genus. Louisiana Master Gardener John Grimm has a collection that includes approximately 60 species and between 5,000 and 6,000 varieties.

Camellias grow well in partial shade, such as that provided when sun is filtered through pine trees. They may be stressed if planted in full sun conditions.

Like azaleas, hollies, and blueberries, camellias grow well in soil that’s well drained and more acidic than what’s optimal for most plants. Soil pH should be between 5.0 and 6.5. Mulch on the surface and high levels of organic matter in the soil are beneficial.

If you prune Japanese, sasanqua, or ShiShi Gashira camellias, try to do so in late winter or early spring, shortly after they finish flowering. This allows time for flower buds to develop for the following season.

One of the most common pest issues on camellias is the tea scale insect. These armored scales settle on the undersides of leaves and can cause yellow spots on the upper sides. Horticultural oils are useful for managing scale insects but may need to be applied multiple times for satisfactory control. Good coverage is essential when using horticultural oils, since they only work on direct contact with insects. Be sure to follow label instructions when applying horticultural oils to avoid injuring plants.

Let me know if you have questions.

Dr. Mary Helen Ferguson is an Associate Extension Agent with the LSU AgCenter, with horticulture responsibilities in Washington and Tangipahoa Parishes. Contact Mary Helen at mhferguson@agcenter.lsu.edu, 985-839-7855 (Franklinton) or 985-277-1850 (Hammond).