The camellia: A showy plant for winter landscapes

Published: Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 11:42 p.m.

Among the woody ornamental plants that perform well in north central Florida, one finds the venerable camellia, one of only a handful of plants whose blossoms brighten the dark days of the winter landscape.

Each year, the Ocala Camellia Society hosts a show allowing the public to view the wide variety of colors and shapes portended by this plant. This year, the colorful display should be especially heartening for gardeners - a colorful alternative to the yellows and browns left in an otherwise barren landscape and a reminder that spring, with all its glory, is on its way.

The show will be held Jan. 23 and 24 at the Pioneer Garden Club in the Appleton Cultural Complex in Ocala.

Landscapers considering camellias will find wide selections of flower shape, plant shape and color variations in nurseries. Flowers appear as single-tiered or double flowers with colors from pure white to brilliant crimson and combinations of colors in numerous patterns. If you attend the camellia show, you'll be entranced by the wide range of colors from which you have to select.

The camellia has a long history in the new world, having been introduced near Charleston, S.C., in 1786. As with any plant, climate is a critical factor in performance and the hot summers and cool winters of the low country and areas south are agreeable to camellias. While these perform well in Alachua and Marion Counties, this presents about the end of the geographic range for this plant. While you'll occasionally find them in central Florida, the climate south of Ocala really becomes too hot for these plants to thrive.

Camellias are one of a handful of plants that prefer a soil pH of about 5 - pretty acidic by most standards. While camellias will live in soils with a pH as high as 6.5, performance is maximized when levels are 5.5 or lower. For most local soils, it will be necessary to amend pH with a sulfur-coated fertilizer. Conduct a soil test to know for sure.

Well-drained, fertile soils, high in organic matter are preferred by camellias, and soil amendments can be useful to transition soils to meet plant needs. Amend soils at planting and topdress lightly with compost in subsequent years to enhance performance.

Oddly enough, in addition to climate type and soil condition, exposure to cold is another important factor in determining a difference between the plant merely getting by and thriving. Camellias should be located so that cold air can move in and out freely, but the area should be protected from cold winds. Plantings under pine trees or on the north or west side of buildings are usually injured less by cold temperatures. Following cold nights, these exposures allow plants to gradually warm in the morning before being exposed to direct sunlight. Dense shade may result in sparse foliage and poor flowering while plants exposed to full sun may exhibit yellow-green leaves, but may yield more flowers than plants in heavy shade.

Transplant camellias as you would other plants, preserving as much of the root ball as possible. The time between November and February is optimal for transplanting, and gardeners should space plants according to the size they will become - usually at least 5 feet apart.

Set plants slightly higher than the root ball or soil level in the pot, and apply a quarter-inch of water daily the first two weeks, then every other day for a month, gradually weaning the plant to your normal irrigation schedule. Once established, irrigation should be necessary only during extended dry periods.

Camellias should require little pruning if they are properly used in the landscape. Necessary pruning should be done in late winter or very early spring. Prune by removing undesirable branches to retain a natural shape and branching habit.

Shearing should be avoided because it will result in a dense layer of foliage that blocks light from the interior branches and it destroys the natural form of the plant.

Shortly after my arrival in Ocala several years ago, I noticed a showy camellia blooming brilliantly in the front yard of a residence near the Extension Office. It was loaded with full, red blossoms in an otherwise drab winter landscape; the only thing of color for blocks around.

Upon asking one of the Master Gardeners about the display, he shrugged and responded that it was nothing spectacular, really, a Professor C.S. Sargent, very common in the camellia world. Perhaps to the camellia connoisseur I thought, but very striking indeed to the pedestrian gardener- certainly a plant worth having for color in the winter landscape.

David Holmes is Marion County extension director. Contact him at

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