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Updated: 10 May 2022

How to grow camellias and the best varieties

These showy shrubs herald the start of spring. Discover our best camellia varieties and tips for how to grow them.
Ceri Thomas
Camellia

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.


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Key facts

PLANT TYPE Small tree or large shrub

POSITION Part shade, some sun

SOIL Moist but well-drained, acid soil

How to grow camellias: month by month

JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJune


FLOWERINGFLOWERINGFLOWERING/PRUNEFEED/WATER
JulyAugustSeptemberOctoberNovemberDecember
WATERWATERWATERWATER

Best camellia varieties

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Full testing results for camellias

Spring-flowering camellias

Variety nameOverall ratingUsual flowering periodFlower impactImpact of displayDuration of floweringDuration of flowering at peakShapePests & disease
Mar-Apr

Jan-Apr

Jan-Mar

Jan-Apr

Mar-Apr

Apr-May

Feb-Apr

USING THE TABLE OVERALL RATING The more stars the better. Rating ignores price and is based on: flower impact 30%; impact of display 30%; duration of flowering 20%; duration of peak flowering 10%; shape 5%; pests & diseases 5%. 

Autumn-flowering camellias

Variety nameOverall ratingPeak floweringFlowering durationFlower impactFlower displayPlant shape & appearanceScentInsect attractionHealth

Nov-Dec

Nov-Dec

Oct-Nov

Nov-Dec

Nov-Dec

Nov-Dec

Oct-Nov

USING THE TABLE The more stars the better. OVERALL RATING Ignores price and is based on: flower display 20%; flower impact 20%; flower duration 15%; plant shape 15%; health 10%; insect attraction 10%; scent 10%.

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.

What are autumn-flowering camellias?

Apart from the difference in flowering time, autumn-flowering camellias generally have smaller leaves than spring-flowering varieties, often with a slightly jagged edge. They tend to be upright and tree-like, with a loose, open shape to the branches. Flower buds are often single or in small clusters rather than the larger clusters of C. japonica, and blooms are usually single, although there are some double-flowered ones. The blooms cope well with cold and wet weather, and finish cleanly with petals dropping away.They are winter hardy in most parts of the UK but are more tender than spring-flowering camellias, so they will need some protection from freezing winds or temperatures below -10°C, and this is especially the case if they’re grown in pots. 

They’re less fussy about soil type, so can be grown in soil close to neutral and drier soil, and they’re much better suited to growing in sun, which results in more flowers. They’re usually scented, and they’re excellent for attracting late-season pollinators such as wasps

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