Call in the spring with camellias. These hardy shrubs have glossy evergreen leaves and romantic floral displays that herald the end of winter.
Camellias burst into flower in February, just as the rest of the garden is starting to wake up. Choose from red, white, pink and cream flowers in a variety of shapes and petal formations.
Camellia plants come in a wide range of styles that make them ideal for all types of garden, from fast-growing shrubs for filling out borders to compact varieties for feature patio pots.
The best camellia varieties
Most camellias have deep green glossy leaves, but there are some variegated forms available too. There are hundreds of varieties available, but here are some highlights from the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) scheme.
A large, strong-growing shrub with an upright habit and semi-double flowers in a rose-pink colour.
Camellia ‘Adolphe Audusson’
A large shrub with compact growth and bright red semi-double flowers with yellow stamen.
An open and vigorous shrub with upright growth and peony-form double flowers in rose-pink.
Camellia ‘Lavinia Maggi’
A medium-sized shrub with large double flowers that have white petals with irregular pink stripes.
How to grow camellias
Given the right conditions, camellias are easy to grow and flower reliably. The most important thing is choosing the right spot.
Camellias are hardy plants, but their flower buds are susceptible to frost once they start to develop. Plant them in a sheltered spot and wrap with a layer of horticultural fleece on frosty nights to protect the emerging flowers.
Camellias are ericaceous plants, which means they like acidic soil. If your soil is alkaline, you can add fertilisers and treatments to make it more alkaline- read more here.
For very alkaline and chalky soil, grow camellias in containers filled with ericaceous compost. If you’re not sure what your soil type is, you can buy cheap pH test kits from garden centres.
When camellias have been exposed to too much alkalinity, the leaves can become pale and yellow. Feed them with an ericaceous plant food or iron sequestrene to make them green and glossy again.
Camellia plants begin developing their flowers in autumn, so make sure they are well-watered towards the end of the year to prevent bud drop.
You do not usually need to prune camellias, but you can shorten the shoots if they start to outgrow their space. They will also respond to occasional harder pruning. Make sure to prune after flowering.
Camellia growing ideas
Camellias should be teamed with other spring-flowering plants for a great display at the beginning of the year. Spring bulbs like crocus, snowdrops and lily of the valley make great ground cover, while taller tulips and daffodils are good for structure.
You can also add other early-flowering shrubs like daphne, witch hazel and forsythia. And continue the display with later-flowering plants like hydrangea and azalea.
And why not make the most of camellia’s evergreen structure by using it as support for a climbing clematis? Plant a summer-flowering variety near the base of the camellia and allow the shoots to scramble over the stems.
David Domoney is a Chartered Horticulturalist, Broadcaster, and Author. David has worked with a number of the UK’s leading garden retailers as a plant buyer and strategic consultant. With more than 30 years experience, in horticulture, David is as passionate about plants now as he was when he bought his first plant at a village fete.