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6 April 2021

How to grow camellias

These showy shrubs herald the start of spring, but which varieties are best
Pink camellias
CT
Ceri Thomas

The bright splash of camellia blooms at the end of winter is a real joy. A hardy, long-lived woodland shrub that are easy to care for and can be grown in pots, too. The multitude of different bloom types that range in colour from deep red through to pink to white all look stunning set against the evergreen, shiny foliage.

Which? Gardening magazine  worked with Trehane Nursery, which specialises in camellias, to find the best varieties.

How to grow camellias: month by month

January February March April May June




FLOWERING FLOWERING FLOWERING/PRUNE FEED/WATER
July August September October November December
WATER WATER WATER WATER



Best camellia varieties

Best Buy camellias
What it looks like Variety name Height x spread
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90 x 80cm after 10 years
The white peony-form flowers of this variety have an almost old-fashioned feel, and are less formal and structured than other varieties. The petals hold a few stamens of bright yellow surrounded by pearlescent petals, which are occasionally streaked with pink. It flowers a little later than other varieties, creating an impressive display for 11 weeks from March to June. It has a very neat, upright habit, suitable for the back of borders or against a wall. Peak flowering: Apr-May.
What it looks like Variety name Height x spread
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90 x 90cm after 10 years
This really is a show-stopping camellia, thanks to the complex geometric arrangement of its petals and wonderful dusky red colour. The flowers often come in pairs, increasing the impact of the show, and the glossy green leaves look attractive throughout the year. It was one of the longest-flowering varieties in our trial, producing plentiful buds from early March through to May. It has quite an open habit but stays neat, making it ideal for pots or growing in a border. Peak flowering: Apr.
What it looks like Variety name Height x spread
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100 x 60cm after eight years
A wonderfully romantic, soft ruffled pink or almost peach in colour, this variety is the perfect example of why camellias are so sought-after. The double blooms are surrounded by a collar of single petals, making them look like a rose. The first flowers started opening in February and then gave a constant burst of colour to the beginning of May. Peak flowering: Mar-Apr
What it looks like Variety name Height x spread
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100 x 50cm after seven years
This bright pink, single camellia is one of the earliest to flower, bursting into bloom in February and giving a wonderful display through the whole of March. The blooms are simple, but the vibrant colour and golden stamens in the centre make this an eye-catching and cheerful addition to any garden. It has a large, open structure so is best where it will have room to spread. It also holds the RHS Award for Garden Merit (AGM). Peak flowering: Mar

How we test camellias

Camellias are slow growing. As we wanted to trial established plants, we worked with Trehane Nursery in Dorset. It has been growing camellias since the 1960s, and it holds more than 200 varieties. We trialled 30 varieties of six-year-old plants (approx height x spread: 80 x 50cm). These included widely sold camellias and more unusual varieties, in a range of colours and bloom formations. The plants were assessed weekly by staff at the nursery, who recorded the formation of buds and flowering from February to June. We also visited in late winter and late spring to take more detailed records. The hot summer of 2018 followed by a mild winter caused later flowering than usual. Varieties that usually start flowering in January started to flower at the end of February. We’ve recorded the actual flowering times for 2019, but this may vary in other years.

Caring for your plants

Positioning

Camellias are woodland plants and thrive in light, slightly acidic soil between pH 5 and 6.5 that is moist, but free-draining. You can test your soil using an inexpensive pH test kit from the garden centre. If your soil is not acidic, plant in a pot of ericaceous compost instead.

In the south, plant in partial shade to prevent scorch. In the north, plant in full sun or light shade to ensure full formation of flower buds. Camellias will grow happily in dense shade, but may not bud up properly. Hybrid varieties, such as ‘Black Lace’, will, in general, perform better than japonica camellias in a shady position. Avoid an east-facing position as early morning sun can damage flowers. Also avoid exposed, windy spots.

Planting in the ground

Water the plant well before planting. Dig out a hole large enough to take the size of rootball of your plant and place the plant into the hole so that the top of the rootball is level with the surrounding soil. Fill in around the rootball and firm well. Mulch around the plant with garden compost or well-rotted manure each year to help conserve moisture in the soil.

Planting in a container

Use a container with good drainage that is no larger than three times the volume of the pot your plant is currently in. Don’t put a small plant straight into a large container. Use ericaceous compost, adding some extra woodchips or grit to provide aeration to the roots. Also add some controlled-release fertiliser for ericaceous plants. Thoroughly water before planting. Remove the plant from its pot and gently tease out the roots if they’re matted. Plant into the container, ensuring the top of the rootball is kept level with the top of the new compost. Firm the compost around the rootball and top up if necessary and then water well. Camellias can be grown for up to 15 years in a large pot – and then can be root pruned after this to restrict their size.

In April each year, topdress the pot with ericaceous compost mixed with controlled-release fertiliser as the new growth is starting, and again in June or July if the plant looks short of food. Don’t feed your camellia any later than July as this causes the plant to drop the flower buds.

Make sure the compost is always moist throughout the whole container, especially when new growth starts in spring and when flower buds are being formed between June and October. Rainwater is ideal but tap water is fine to use too.

Insulate the container or move to a more sheltered place during the winter. The plant will need potting on to a larger pot every two or three years until the final container, which should be at least 50L.

Deadheading

Camellias are hardy but if your plant is small enough it can be worth protecting the flowers from frost on cold nights by covering with fleece. If your plant isn’t shedding brown flowers naturally, it’s usually simply a case of giving it a shake to dislodge faded blooms. You can deadhead it to keep it looking tidy but it isn’t necessary as it doesn’t impact flowering.

Pruning

Light pruning to keep the plant in shape is best done in spring just after it finishes flowering, before it has begun to produce new growth. Heavy pruning can be done at any time of the year, although spring is preferable, but bear in mind that you will lose a year’s display of flowers. Camellias are very tolerant of pruning and usually regrow vigorously when heavily trimmed back. 

Common growing problems

Brown flowers

Brown flowers can be caused by frost damage, exacerbated by early-morning sun falling on frozen buds. Try to provide early-morning shade for your plant or move it to a west-facing spot in the garden. White camellias will show unsightly brown bruising from wind and rain damage.

Camellia blight

Camellia blight also turns flowers brown and produces telltale white fungal growth at base of the flowers. Although there is no treatment, you can reduce the risk of infection by clearing the fallen flowers and putting them in the bin. Do not compost them as this will not kill the fungal spores.

Buds falling off

Buds falling off is an annoying problem. If the buds form on your camellia and then drop off, dry soil in late summer is likely to be a cause. Watering regularly and mulching should help. If the buds fall off in the winter, too much cold and wind is probably the cause. Moving the bush to a sheltered site is the best remedy, but in the short term a covering with fleece, bubble wrap or a plastic bag filled with newspaper in the coldest period, should help.

Yellowing leaves

Yellowing leaves is a common problem. Camellias always look worse just after flowering with the older leaves yellowing and dropping. If all the leaves on the plant are generally pale then it may be a sign that the plant needs feeding with a fertiliser for acid-loving plants. If you’re growing in a container, yellow leaves can indicate waterlogging or that the plant has outgrown the pot. Soil with too much lime in it can also cause camellia leaves to turn yellow – if the pH is greater than 6.5, camellias are unlikely to thrive. If the problem is minor, feed the plants with a fertiliser for acid-loving plants. If it is severe, grow your camellias in containers.

Black on the leaves

Sooty mould can cause dark marks to appear on the leaves, but these, and the insects that cause them with their sticky excretions, can be washed off by wiping with a damp cloth. For larger plants where this is impractical, use a suitable insecticide. Light pruning just after flowering has finished can help remove overwintering pests before they lay their eggs


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