How to Grow Camellias

Camellias are a showy spring flowering shrub with lovely blooms. Camellias are not the easiest shrub to grow, and the saying "Right plant right place" is crucial when growing Camellias, which will only thrive in the right spot with the correct soil. When growing Camellia the soil type, which needs to be ericaceous (i.e.acid) soil is absolutely essential. Camellias are one of the acid loving group of shrubs, which also includes Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Pieris, all woodland shrubs which will only grow in acid soil.  Once established Camellia are low maintenance, although they can be reluctant to flower. 

There is a very wide range of Camellia shrubs on offer in garden centres, in many sizes and colours. The hardiness of Camellia varies from fully hardy to slightly tender, and the latter types need winter protection. Check the label for information and also an explanation of what frost hardy means.   Camellia shrubs vary in size from 1-20 metre, most offered on line and in garden centres are medium sized and slow growing, up to a few metres.  Camellias are evergreen, the foliage is attractive and glossy which is an additional reason to include them in a mixed border. Camellias flower in the spring, the flowers are very attractive as the images show and colours are predominantly shades of red, pink, white and very occasionally yellow. There are also a large number of variegated Camellia as illustrated above right.

Camellias are not easy to grow and so are not everyone's ideal shrub. Check out other Spring flowering shrubs, and also evergreen shrubs for more ideas.  

Camellia is a red wheelbarrow shrub,  which shows  it is difficult to grow. Those gardeners whose Camellias flower year after year in abundance, with lovely green glossy leaves, are probably wondering why, but in many conditions and parts of the country Camellia can be difficult and travelling around there are plenty examples to be seen of Camellias with sad yellowing leaves and discoloured blooms.

Why are Camellias difficult to grow?

Camellias are fussy. When planting do not plant too deep the root ball should be level with the earth. Camellias must have acid soil otherwise they will fail to thrive and flower. This means if your soil is not acid you will only be able to grow Camellia in a container, although fortunately Camellia are a shrub happy to be container grown. It follows that it is essential to purchase ericaceous (acid) compost to fill the container.  Camellias like moist well drained acid soil, in partial sun and away from cold winds in a sheltered spot, and not facing East. 

If that is not enough, they also enjoy a nice leaf mulch being a woodland plant.

Camillia flower damaged by frost

In addition, Camellias dislike the cold winds and although many are fully hardy, the buds and flowers can be damaged by the morning sun, as illustrated in the image left. This is a common problem with Camellia, and to avoid or reduce this problem, Camellia do not plant Camellia facing East where the blooms will catch the morning sun. This is particularly a problem when there is frost followed by morning sun, which really damages the buds and blooms, causing them to go brown as in the image left. It is the combination of early morning sun and frost which does the most damage, and as a result many of the shrub's flowers can look similar to the one in the image. This means when growing Camellias selecting where to plant it is more critical than with some other types of shrubs. It is because Camellias are sensitive to frosts which damages their blooms, a sheltered non east facing spot is best and if you garden in a colder area prone to frost, growing Camellias will present more of a challenge. Generally Camellias prefer semi- shade.

Wet and windy weather can also turn the lovely blooms brown. 

Another problem is that sometimes Camellias fail to flower. When this occurs it is always worth trying an ericaceous feed in the spring and early summer.  Flower drop can also be a problem and if it is dry in the spring and summer, water well to prevent flower drop. A mulch will help to preserve moisture. It's best to avoid watering with tap water because it contains Calcium, which reduces the acidity. It is important to feed Camellias only with ericaceous feed and early in the year. 

Camellias are grown for their flowers and also their foliage which is a rich, very glossy green, or should be. Sometimes Camellias can look patchy, with yellow or light coloured foliage. The most common cause of this is that the soil is not sufficiently acid. In which case either re plant in a container, or feed with ericaceous feed and don't use tap water. It is best not to let Camellias to dry as this can also lead to poor flowering and bud drop.

When planting a Camellia dig a large hole and add leaf mould, if possible which is ideal, or a suitable ericaceous feed. Camellia should be planted at soil level. To check this once you have placed the Camellia in the hole, lie a cane across the top of the hole to check the shrub is at soil level, and then fill in and water well. The most important point is to plant in a suitable spot, sheltered with dappled shade and out of direct sunlight. 

How to prune Camellia

Camellias do not need routine pruning. However, if a Camellia has become too large for its allotted space it can be pruned and if needs be, pruned hard. As always timing is important. Bear in mind the buds on a Camellia form in summer and autumn. This means if you are to avoid cutting off the buds, you must prune just after flowering in the spring. There is no specific requirement to prune and they will happily carry on growing without it. If a Camellia becomes overgrown it can be hard pruned and will re grow.  As with all renovative pruning if you are pruning very hard it maybe best undertaken over 2/3 growing seasons.

Having said all of that, once established in the right place a Camellia will happily get on with the business of growing and flowering without much attention;  the trick is to plant it in the right place and soil to start with. 

Problems growing Camellia yellowing foliage

healthy foliage on Camellia

One of the common problems when growing Camellia is yellowing foliage.

The image left shows a healthy Camellia planted in the right place growing well with lovely glossy green leaves. The Camellia on the right is not enjoying the best conditions and its foliage is looking yellow and poor.

Yellowing foliage on Camellia

Growing Camellias in containers

If you like Camellias but your growing conditions are not ideal, you can grow Camellias in containers.  To grow in containers it may be more manageable to select a smaller variety and a good-sized container filled with ericaceous compost. Mix into the compost some ericaceous fertiliser, slow release for one season or feed with ericaceous feed. Water with rainwater if at all possible. A camellia in a pot will require repotting into a large container with fresh ericaceous compost as it develops. If you do not repot top dress, which is to scrape away the top 5cms of compost from the top of the container and replenish with fresh ericaceous compost.  In the winter elevate from the ground to protect from frost using bricks. Place in a sheltered spot away from direct sunlight.

 Check out Fast Growing Evergreen Shrubs for more planting ideas.

Best Types of Camellia to grow

The RHS recommends the following varieties:

  Camellia x williamsii 'Donation' large pink semi-double flowers which flowers  from late winter to mid-spring; 5m x 2.5m, will grow in a shaded position and is more hardy than Camellia japonica 'Adolphe Audusson which has bright red flowers in early spring,  5m x 4m

  Camellia 'Cornish Snow' small, white single flowers in late winter; 3m x 1.5m. H4 rating 

Also : Camellia japonica 'Tricolor' which as the name suggests blooms are white, striped red and pink. C x williamsii 'Brigadoon' semi double rose pink blooms. C. Japonica 'Elegans' large rose pink flowers.

I rather like to bold red of C. 'Drama girl' illustrated below.

Camellia 'Easter Morn

Camellia 'Easter Morn

Camellia 'Drama girl'

Camellia 'Drama girl'

Cameilla 'E G Waterhouse'

Cameilla x williamsii 'E G Waterhouse'

Last updated 12.01.2020