As a gardener, I admit to having plant biases, and Camellia japonica is one of the plants I misunderstood.
Many gardening guides portray the camellia as needing a lot of water and care, but I have found them to be the opposite. They are quite resilient and easy to care for at the Gardens at Heather Farm.
A white Camellia japonica was planted in the front gardens under Quercus lobata (valley oak) in 1985 when the garden was developed.
In 2000, summer irrigation in this area was turned off to maintain the health of the oak. The established camellia adjusted to its newly dry conditions and is happy with infrequent hand watering.
Best known for its elegance and grace, Camellia japonica is one of those shrubs or specimen plants associated with 1950s birth of the suburbs. They often were used in the landscape tucked beneath the eaves or planted on the north side of a house in a new development.
Camellias are native to areas in northern India, the Himalayas, China and Japan, where they grow in moist, humus-rich soils in woodland areas. They are loved for their deep red or creamy pink flowers with unusually large yellow stamens that remind us that even though it is February, spring is slowly unfolding.
There are more than 250 species of camellia. These evergreen shrubs or trees have beautiful glossy hunter-green leaves offset by the showy flowers that come in a variety of colors and forms including single, semidouble, peony or rose-shaped. They are solitary and rarely have a fragrance. The single varieties are my favorite because the flowers have a crepe paper appearance and the center is filled with long lemony-yellow stamens.
Caring for camellias is quite easy. While we do not fertilize them at the Gardens, the best time to do so is when new growth appears in the spring. Cottonseed meal is a good alternative to chemical fertilizers, and it can be applied throughout the spring through fall.
Camellias need little pruning. I once read that “A camellia should be pruned so that a bird can fly through it.” When the plant has finished blooming, remove any dead or nonproductive twigs and then cut enough in the center to allow light and air to circulate through.
Good air circulation helps reduce the chance of the plant getting sooty mold, which is caused by aphids.
Camellias can be fussy at times. A fungus, Ciborinia camelliae, spreads by the wind and causes the flowers to get brown spots on them. If the fungus is really bad, the entire flower will turn brown and fall off.
According to UC Davis Integrated Pest Management, apply 4 inches of organic mulch beneath plants to reduce spore survival. Do not add camellia petals or leaves to any compost that will be used around camellias.
Each year after the blossoming season, place a fresh layer of organic mulch on top of existing mulch.
Avoid moving or disturbing existing mulch beneath plants where fungal spores may have settled. Pick and dispose of all blighted blossoms. Avoid overhead irrigation.
To learn more, go to UC Davis’ website, www.ipm.ucdavis.edu.
The camellias growing in our gardens are healthy and free of pests.
We water deeply and infrequently, add fresh mulch each winter and do very little pruning.
— Patrice Hanlon, Garden Manager