What to do this week –By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”
January is the time of year when many of our landscape plants have gone dormant. As cooler weather prevails, plants slow their growth and for most plants, color fades from the landscape. Because many of our residents spend their summers up north, they never get a chance to see the beautiful colors our landscapes can produce. This week I would like to talk about one of my favorite plants that can make you winter months gratifying, the Camellias. With their amazing varieties of colors and sizes, Camellias can give you that winter color you have been looking for. This article will give you the information you need to properly select, plant, grow, and care for camellias in your landscape.
There are two species of camellias I would like to introduce you to, Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. Camellia japonica has large leathery, shiny leaves with five to eight inch flowers that bloom from December through February. Some forms of this species may be tall and resemble a column while others are rounded and wider than their height. Although this species of camellia is a slow growing plant, I have seen some plants over twenty feet in height. However, those plants were well over fifty years old or older. Most of the camellias I see growing in homeowners gardens are of this variety and the usual height I see them at are between five to six feet.
There are several cultivars of this species that I would recommend for central Florida. Laura Walker (pictured below) is one of my favorites. Debutante, Don Mac, Mrs. Tingley, and Mathotiana are a few other varieties of bushy camellias I have grown in the past. Although there are many varieties that will grow here, these are a few of the cultivars which seem to do better in our area and have fewer problems.
Camellia sasanqua grows much more slowly than the japonica species and most are used as small shrubs normally growing no more than three feet tall. Flowers of this species are smaller than the japonicas and the leaves are small with a pointed end. Sasanqua camellias are normally open growers and are not as dense as the japonicas. The other main difference between these species is that the sasanqua species are fragrant where the japonica species are not. If you are looking for a larger shrub you should choose a japonica. If you are looking for a small shrub which grows more prostrate, choose the sasanqua.
One of the most highly recommended cultivars of the sasanqua camellias is called Shishi Gashira pictured below courtesy of Brighter Blooms Nursery. This beautiful evergreen plant will add tons of blossoms to your winter garden when most other plants have faded to brown. Shishi Gashira is usually planted in groups on two foot centers for best results. Although this plant can grow to a height of four to five feet, you can easily train this plant to keep it at two to three feet. Other varieties I recommend for this area are Mine-no-yuki, Cotton Candy, and Sparkling Burgundy.
Selecting a plant for your yard will first include deciding whether or not you want a small dwarf camellia like the sasanqua or an upright grower like the japonica. Next you will need to place your new plant in an area that the camellia will grow its best. Camellias like to grow in areas that are shaded by other trees. I like to put my plants near the home where they receive only part sun or morning sun or under the drip lines of oak or pine trees which take the heat of the sun away from the plants.
Because camellias like well drained soil you may think that the sand we plant them in would be sufficient. However, to give your new plants the best start you should improve the soil with peat and humus or compost. Remember, our soils contain little if any organic matter so you should start by digging a hole at least twice as wide as the root ball of the camellia you are planting. Place the new plant in the hole and add two parts sand to one part compost or black kow and one part peat. Use this mixture to fill in around the root ball of your new plant. You do not need to improve the soil beneath the root ball because the roots will spread out not down. I also like to add a handful or two of an azalea/camellia fertilizer to the mix before I fill in the area around the root ball. Try not compact the soil too much around the plants after planting as this will restrict the new root growth coming out of the root ball.
After planting the camellia, you will need to water settle the plant. Use a hose and lightly water around the plant to remove any air pockets from the planting hole. Again, be sure not to compact the soil too much. Use just enough pressure to stabilize the new plant then let the water you use help settle the plant. When you are finished, the top of the root ball should be level with the soil surface. You do not want to bury the top of the root ball as this will cut off oxygen to the plant. You may add a thin layer of mulch around the plant when you are finished to help conserve water. After planting, water your new plants every other day and be sure the root ball is does not dry out. If the root ball is allowed to dry out you will have a hard time wetting it again. Remember, root balls can actually repel water if they are allowed to dry out. This can cause your plants to die so keep your eyes on your watering schedule.
There are a few problems you will have to watch for on camellias. Scale insects injure your plants by sucking plant juices from the leaves. One scale in particular called t scale infests the under side on camellia leaves (see photo below).
Look for small whitish and brown insects on the bottom of the leaves and if you find them you will need to treat your plant with horticultural spray oil applied to the underside of the leaves. Two applications fifteen days apart should control this problem. Another problem called bullnosing can happen when temperatures rise in the winter causing the newly formed flower buds to abort and drop off the plant. This happens in mild winters after cool weather is followed by a drastic warm up in air temperature. Unfortunately there is no control for this problem except to use the cultivars I have suggested above which do not have a tendency to abort their buds.
Another good thing about camellias is the fact that these plants are slow growers and you never have to worry about cold weather damaging your plants. Camellias also only require modest pruning or shaping. Once per year you may need to prune an individual branch which is growing out of place. Prune after the bloom season around March or April.
Camellias can add the color you want in the wintertime and for the most part, give you years of flowering blooms when most other plants are dormant. Because many of us want carefree plants, camellias require little maintenance and are cold hardy. Enjoy these plants in your garden and remember, without plants we would not be here.