The air may be cooler and garden activity may have slowed, but that hasn’t prevented winter blooming camellias from pulling out all the stops. the most popular is Camellia japonica, which you’ll see in flower now, covered top to bottom in pink, red or white petals. and then there’s Camellia reticulata, the lesser known but equally beautiful variety, which has much larger flowers. Both are prolific winter bloomers and very easy to grow, with a naturally neat shape and dark, glossy evergreen leaves, which ensure the shrub looks good even when its flowers have long disappeared. Incredibly versatile, camellias can be used as feature plants, privacy screens, clipped hedges, small shade trees or even in pots. however you choose to use them, these two floriferous plants will display the most magnificent blooms you will see this season.
Japonica versus reticulata
Reticulatas, or ‘retics’ as camellia lovers like to call them, tend to grow taller with a looser, more open habit than japonicas, which are usually tighter and are more densely foliaged. Retics will eventually form small trees and, though some types of japonica can also become tree-like, most remain as shrubs, under 4m in height. The leaves of retics are distinctly veiny and their flowers are almost always bigger than those of japonicas – sometimes the size of dinner plates! While both can be grown in anything from full shade to full sun, retics are generally happier in sun. Although, if you do want to grow a japonica in a lot of sun, choose one with darker rather than lighter coloured flowers.
Growing your camellias
These camellias grow best in mild, humid climates, but can also thrive in cold, mountainous regions. They’re not well-suited to hot, dry inland areas, but if you want to try, they will need special care: shade, humus-enriched, well-draining soil and close company of other shrubs and trees. And quite a bit of water, too. In the tropics, they prefer to live up on the tablelands
than down on the steamy coast.
Part-shade is best, but they can also grow in full sun. White and pale pink cultivars will need more shade than deeper colours, as the sun tends to burn pale flowers.
Camellias grow best in moist, organically enriched, well-drained acidic soil. If your soil quality is poor, consider growing in a raised bed, filled with good quality garden mix.
When planting, water in well and give young plants a weekly or twice weekly drink for the first few months. If your summers are hot and dry, water regularly from late spring to early autumn. In other areas, natural rainfall is usually enough for established plants, but give extra water in dry spells.
Sprinkle a single dose of controlled release fertiliser in spring (after blooming) or mulch around the plants with compost and aged manure.
Pruning of camellias can be done after flowering, but it’s only required if you want to shape them. To shape a plant, shear lightly all over and repeat during summer. If an old plant has grown too big, you can cut it back hard to just a framework of branches. You’ll lose next winter’s flowers, but the plant will re-shoot into a smaller specimen.