Camellia, We Feel Ya
How to grow incredible camellias without even trying. At all.
I wanted to share my prized gardening achievement. There are two enormous camellia bushes flanking our front entryway, and this time of year—winter—they begin to develop the most gorgeous blossoms imaginable. By the time these two behemoths are done blossoming out for the season, they will have produced hundreds of delicate, pale pink flowers.
I used my favorite gardening technique to produce such healthy plants and luscious blossoms, which was to buy a house with the camellias already established. From that point on, I have done absolutely nothing in the way of pruning, watering or applying nutrients of any kind, a well-considered hands-off approach which our two camellias have gratefully rewarded with an abundance of charm and beauty, especially during the drearier times of the year.
Camellias are evergreen shrubs, with tough, waxy green leaves that add to their winter appeal. They can grow up to 15 feet plus tall and as wide. They were first cultivated in Asia and were essentially unknown to the rest of the world until an intrepid British explorer (naturally) brought some back to England in the early 1700s. This is the beginning of the period when the English went absolutely bonkers for new plant species, and if you sailed home with a handful of never-before-seen seeds you were likely to be knighted and spend the rest of your life on a tony estate with hunting dogs (English setters) and—you guessed it—full-time gardeners.
Camellia is the genus of the family Theaceae. The true total of Camellia species is unknown, it’s somewhere between 100 and 300 not counting hybrids. Wikipedia notes that “there is some controversy over the exact number.” With that in mind I can easily envision heated arguments between Camellia Emeritus botanists as they debate the numerical possibilities. In fact, I’ve written a fantastically dramatic play about it, set in the late 1800s:
Fobbington: Billingsworth, you spotted dick! The fact that there are exactly two-hundred and four identified species of Camellia is astounding in its factuality!
Billingsworth: My dear addled Fobbington, you have plum pudding for a brain! You do the Royal Society of Casual Camellia Aficionados an enourmous (<<British spelling, I think) injustice of historic proportions! With my very life I shall defend the honour (<<ditto) and integrity of our two-hundred and twenty-one confirmed species!
Fobbington: Are you challenging me to a duel, sir?
Billingsworth: I am!
Fobbington: Then the encounter is thus charged! (<< meaning he’s down with it). What are the weapons of choice?
Billingsworth: Fronds, sir! It shall be fronds!
Okay, the rest of the plot isn’t fully developed. I think an argument ensues over what frond species to use, which doubles down on the entire premise and heightens the tension. And I need to insert some kind of love interest in there, possibly a scullery maid, which sadly makes a marriage impossible because of the differing social strata.
Meanwhile, the American Camellia Society (yes, it’s real) suggests a number of ways to care for camellias (with a few helpful notes from me):
• Fertilizers should be applied in an economic but methodical process (I think the proper word form would be “economical.” Just sayin'—JR). Higher nitrogen rates are best applied in spring, then changing to moderate nitrogen and phosphate, and to higher potassium in September.
• Water is not only essential for normal growth but a continuous supply ensures constant mineral uptake. (Well, I haven’t watered our beauties for years, so take this under advisement—JR)
• The ultimate pruning plan will reflect one's interests in camellia culture. Growers primarily interested in producing show flowers generally thin out more branches than those grown for landscape use. (I think this implies there are stages of pruning plans, starting with my personal favorite—Nonexistent—moving to Thinking About Pruning, then Hacking Aimlessly (Deb’s favorite), and finally to Ultimate).
Maybe the best Ultimate Plan plan is to do what we did, which was to buy a house with established camellias. True, this plan ultimately cost a few hundred thousand dollars, but the results have been so worth it!