Japonica, Common Camellia or Japanese Camellia, Sasanqua,

Camellia Japonica has dark green, lustrous, leathery leaves and its size varies according to the variety. The average height is 4 x 3m.

The two hundred and fifty species of stately, winter-blooming evergreens that make up the genus Camellia originated in the East, but there are now more than 3 000 named hybrids found around the world. This makes it almost impossible to classify each of these ornamental shrubs or trees according to their botanical names and origins without the help of a camellia expert, so when we choose them for planting it is usually according to the type of flower.

The blooms are described as being either single, semi-double, double or formal double, and in the shape of an anemone, peony or double rose. The flower sizes and colours differ dramatically from hybrid to hybrid; there are variations of white, pale white, soft pink, bright pink, shocking pink, watermelon pink, light red and very deep tomato red. In addition, some blooms have bold splotches of colour and some have protruding yellow filaments.

Camellias, along with many of the other ‘old fashioned’ shrubs, have fallen out of favour somewhat, probably because they are slightly harder to propagate and take several years before they become marketable. Out of season and without their attractive blooms, they remain unappreciated in nurseries unless someone is specifically looking for them and knows the particular hybrid they seek by name. However, they are on our list because they are one of the hardiest of the garden shrubs, and especially suitable for very cold and ‘difficult’ climates.

When does Camellia bloom?

The breathtaking flowers appear from early autumn throughout winter and into spring.

Most suitable climate for the Camellia

Camellias prefer cool climates and are suitable for very cold winter gardens. They are frost hardy.

What they need

Location: sun or shade. Morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal. Camellias prefer to grow in the dappled shade of large trees, but deep shade reduces the number of flowers.

Soil: camellias prefer cool, moist, acidic soil (but they are more tolerant of higher pH levels than azaleas). Add acidic or coarse compost to the planting holes and always put down a layer of pine needle mulch. Camellias need soil that drains well, so perform this test before planting: dig a generous planting hole, fill it with water and check it the next morning. If the soil is damp rather than soft mud, you can plant with peace of mind. If you simply must have camellias but your soil is unsuitable, remember that they make good container plants.

Water: camellias are medium to high water consumers, but do not like constantly wet feet.

Fertilizing and pruning: camellias are hungry plants – they need loads of energy to produce their masses of flowers. The secret is a dose of slow-release fertilizer in late spring, such as 5.1.5, when blooming ceases, and a thin mulch of well-decomposed compost that continually releases nutrients and keeps the soil cool and relatively damp until you water it again. Camellia roots are quite shallow so the layer of mulch must be thin – rather add more compost when necessary.

Foliage that becomes too dense limits the amount of sunlight that reaches the central branches, and this in turn reduces the number of flowers formed. A light prune of the inner branches (once flowering season is over) will solve the problem. Also prune away any untidy stems at the same time. Fairly rigorous pruning of sparse plants can help to encourage new growth. Camellia sasanqua hybrids respond particularly well to heavy pruning; this trait can be exploited to make them into attractive hedges.

Watch out for this

Flower buds that remain closed and drop off can have a number of causes, including:

  • To little or too much water. Deep watering is essential during the few months before the plant is due to flower and while it is flowering.
  • Sharp temperature changes. (You have no control over this, but there’s always next time.)
  • Too many blooms. (Give the camellia credit for getting rid of the excess!)
  • Overfeeding in the wrong season. Camellias must be fed during spring.

In a nutshell

  • Perfect for colder climates
  • Large framework shrubs
  • Provide lovely colour in winter
  • Neat in summer with dark green luscious foliage.

Camellia Sasanqua Hybrids

These shrubs or small trees originate from Japan. They are evergreen; clothed with attractive, dark green, glossy foliage.

Masses of blooms cover the plants from late summer through to the end of autumn. The first (primary) flush of flowers appear as terminal buds on the ends of each branch whilst the secondary flush appears as flowers set in the leaf axils along the length of the previous season’s growth. This interesting phenomenon helps to extend the flowering season by two or three months in succession. Certainly, an awesome performance from such a large flowering shrub.

The individual blooms are described as being small in Camellia terms but nevertheless measure between 40 mm and 90 mm in diameter depending on variety, growing conditions and time of the year. Not only does the bloom size vary tremendously, relative to each named hybrid, so too does the shape, form and colour of the individual flower. Some flowers are simple; single with a few petals and a centre of prominent yellow stamens, whilst others are more complex, with a pompon-like shape comprising of petals and petaloids. Colours vary from white through shades of pink to dark rose and burgundy red. Many are fragrant.

Sasanqua Camellias grow in light, dappled shade to full sun and prefer loamy, well-drained soils rich in humus and leaf mould. They grow into dense shrubs and form effective hedges and screens that can either be clipped into formal styles or simply left to grow informally. As they age, the lose their lower growth and make the perfect small tree for a courtyard or townhouse garden.

They should be pruned back lightly in early spring before new growth starts. Older plants can be rejuvenated by pruning back severely in early spring to a height of 60 to 90 cm. This drastic action needs to be carried out every 8 to 10 years to keep the plants vigorous and productive. They grow in most climates around the country and are easier to grow than their larger flowered and more popular relatives, the Camellia japonica.

They are rewarding container plants for patios, either as bushes or trained into standards or lollipops. Their small leaves and tight, compact growth habit make them ideal specimens for bonsai. Certain of the low growing hybrids with arching branches thrive in very large hanging baskets or suspended containers. The foliage is useful as a long-lasting filler for the vase.

Perhaps the most important fact of all is that all the numerous flower buds open into a perfect bloom every time, setting them in a rare class of their own. Every garden deserves at least one Sasanqua Camellia, irrespective of its size.

What they need

Feed and water as for Camellia Japonica.

The Gardener