There are over 80 species of camellias, but only three of these, Camellia Japonica, Camellia Sasanqua, and Camellia Reticulata, are really widespread and well-known. No one has been able to count with certainty the number of varieties or cultivars within these three species or crosses between them, but the named and officially registered cultivars run into many thousands.
The combination of an evergreen shrub with dark green, glossy leaves, and colorful wax-like flowers of almost infinite variety is superb. When it is realized that selected camellias flower through the autumn, winter, and spring months it becomes a truly valuable acquisition to the home gardener. And the plant grows well if, and only if (gardeners with green thumbs are excluded), some easy rules and precautions are followed.
The opening buds and the blooms can be blasted by frost, particularly if the rays of the early morning winter sun fall on them. The leaves are usually unaffected by frost, though a reddish coloring is sometimes observed; but the leaves can be burned brown or blanched a yellow-green by the hot summer sun.
The first rule, therefore, is to select a planting position protected from the midday summer sun and from the morning winter sun. Difficult? Not so: the south side of the house or garage, about 90 centimeters out from the wall is ideal. Under trees, in the shelter of trees, pergolas, lath or greenhouses are all good spots. Give it some thought. Be careful, however, that other trees or shrubs do not rob the shallow-rooting camellia of its nourishment.
Remember the tea plant? It is grown on hillsides to obtain the benefit of near-perfect drainage. The home-grown camellia also grows well on a slope but flourishes equally well on the flat ground provided the soil is properly drained. In clayey soil conditions, the answer is often to build a garden bed raised about 45 centimeters above the normal ground level.
This follows from the requirement for drainage. Make sure when planting out that the lop surface of the old root ball is above, say, 2.5 centimeters above the surrounding soil level. Cover the exposed root ball with a mulch.
Be very careful with fertilizers
Do not fertilize a newly planted camellia during its first growing season unless you are an expert. After that, feed it regularly with a nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium fertilizer at a dosage half that usually recommended on the package for camellias, azaleas, etc. A camellia plant is easily murdered by fertilizer.
Water a camellia just before the soil dries out. The plant must never be allowed to dry right out nor must it have soggy feet. Proper drainage should avoid the latter condition, and if excellent drainage does exist, it would be difficult indeed to overwater especially in summer.
Camellias will not thrive in an alkaline soil. Unless the ground has been deliberately limed or unintentionally so (for example, under the spot where a builder mixed his cement), there is usually no need to worry about the alkalinity of the soil. Tests can be conducted by experts if you are uncertain of your soil acidity/alkalinity. With advice, the problem is very easily and cheaply overcome.
Camellias do thrive on organic matter and it is no exaggeration to say that they will grow splendidly in a mixture composed entirely of organic matter. However, some care is needed and it is safer for the average home gardener merely to see that his soil is supplied with generous quantities of rotted organic matter — mix it in the soil and spread it over the top as a mulch.
We are fortunate to have so many deciduous trees; the fallen leaves of oak trees are particularly suitable, but all leaves are very useful. Pine bark, well-rotted sawdust, and old manure are all good for the purpose, while pine needles are an excellent mulch for the top. Compost of course is ideal. Make sure, however, that water is able to penetrate whatever mulch you put on top — oak leaves for instance can form a natural roof and shed water and are better composted or mixed in the soil.
There are no rules specifically for soil mixtures and every grower has his own favorite. If the rules above are followed, particularly in regard to free drainage and incorporation of organic matter, there should be no problems.
Because of the severe conditions during the flowering season the home gardener is advised to avoid white camellias unless these can be given especially protected conditions. Concentrate on the reds, striped, and pink-flowered varieties.
Some of the tried and tested varieties are listed: Camellia Japonica (flowers June October); Great Eastern, Emperor of Russia, Guilio Nuccio, The Czar, Lady Loch, Roma Risorta, Carters Sunburst, Daitairin, Adolphe Audusson, Kick-Off, Camellia Sasanqua (flowers March-July); Kanjiro (Hiryu), Lucinda, Hana Jiman, Shishi Gashira, Showa-no-Sakae, Mine-no-yuki (white, but worth trying), Camellia Reticulata (flowers August-October but very expensive); Crimson Robe, Valentine Day, William Hertrich, Francie L Hybrids.