Camellias: February plant of the moment

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Few hardy shrubs signal the end of winter better than Camellias, highly valued for their stunning floral displays and fresh, glossy, evergreen foliage. With dozens of varieties available you’ll be spoilt for choice, so pick from camellias in shades of pink, red, white and cream.

Their ultimate size, habit and rate of growth vary immensely too, so consider how much space the Camellia will need as it grows. Whether you’d like something that stays small and compact or will grow into a bold shrub or even a flowering hedge or screen, the choice is yours.

Camellia flowers vary in size and shape too, and their forms can be divided into six descriptive groups depending on the number of petals and their pattern or arrangement within the flower. These forms are described as follows: 

  1. Single
  2. Semi-double
  3. Anemone-form
  4. Peony-form
  5. Rose-form double
  6. Formal double
Blossoms of white Camellia japonica

Like Azaleas and Rhododendrons, Camellias are ericaceous plants, and this means they need to grow in an acid or lime-free soil to ensure they stay healthy. A simple soil test kit available from garden centres can be used to check your soils acidity/alkalinity (often called its pH), and composts and fertilisers can be added to help make soil more acid.

Alternatively, compact varieties of camellia grow well in large pots or half-barrels filled with ericaceous compost, available in garden centres.

Grown in the right soil and position camellias usually flower reliably with little care and attention, growing larger over time to develop into impressive flowering shrubs. They rarely need pruning, but if they outgrow their position individual shoots can be shortened, and plants can even regrow well if cut back hard into old wood. Where space is available develop a seasonal bed including a camellia or two and other evergreens and early flowering plants to provide welcome colour through late winter and into early spring.

Top four popular Camellias for pots or borders

Literally hundreds of camellia varieties are available from nurseries across the country with numerous colours, forms and sizes. Most have glossy green foliage, but some variegated varieties are also available. The very best camellias are given an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) by the Royal Horticultural Society to indicate their superb garden performance, and here are some of the most popular.

  1. ‘Donation’ – Semi-double rose-pink flowers. Upright habit. Strong growing.
  2. ‘Adolphe Audusson’ – Bright red flowers. Strong growing.
  3. ‘Debbie’ – Peony-form pink flower. Upright. Strong growing.
  4. ‘Lavinia Maggi’ – Large double white flowers with pink stripes. Medium vigour.

How to grow Camellias

Early flowering camellias can be damaged by frost, so position plants in a sheltered part of your garden. Move pots to sheltered sites during bad weather. Cover bushes with sheets of fleece to protect buds and blooms on frosty nights, removing it once conditions warm-up in the morning.

Water camellias with collected rain water if possible. Some tap water contains high levels of lime (often referred to as hard water), so avoid using this to water camellias and other ericaceous plants.

Grown in chalky soil or irrigated with hard tap water the leaves of camellias usually turn pale and yellow. Feeding these plants with an ericaceous plant food or iron sequestrene can help them regain their glossy green appearance.

Did you know

Some camellias flower through autumn and into winter? Look out for varieties of Camellia sasanqua to provide this welcome winter colour. And as an added bonus their flowers are often wonderfully fragrant too!

Other popular Camellias to look out for:

  • ‘Anticipation’ – Double peony-form rose-pink flowers. Upright.
  • ‘Desire’ – Double white with pink edges. Upright growing.
  • ‘J.C.Williams’ – Peony-like double rose-pink flowers. Vigorous.
  • ‘Jury’s Yellow’ – Anemone-form white flowers, pale yellow centre. Compact. Upright.

Creating planting combinations with Camellias

Choose a range of hardy shrubs, flowering perennials and bulbs to grow in combination with camellias, as well as a selection of ground covering plants that will spread out over the soil beneath bushes. Here are some popular choices:

  • Azaleas
  • Conifers, including yew
  • Crocus
  • Cyclamen
  • Daphne
  • Ferns
  • Forget-me-nots
  • Forsythia
  • Hydrangeas
  • Japanese Maples (Acer varieties)
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Narcissus
  • Pieris
  • Pulmonaria
  • Rhododendrons
  • Snowdrops (Galanthus varieties)
  • Tulips
  • Witch Hazel (Hamamelis)