Winter is here with it’s gray blustery days and temps well below zero. Many folks reach for a Happy Light to keep them going (nothing wrong with that!), but my choice is a spontaneous trek to a local conservatory. I’m fortunate to have several conservatories within an hour drive….not many folks do. My pick for this trip was Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul, MN. It’s been awhile since I’ve visited this conservatory, but my regional garden magazine, Northern Gardener, inspired my trip. A huge thank you to Mary Lahr Schier and her team because I found what I needed to brighten my spirits….this Camellia japonica trained in the Bonsai method. A win any time, but a special win for this cold climate gardener.
Rarely, if ever, do I find camellia in my area and certainly not in the winter!
Camellias are a genus of evergreen trees and shrubs native to China, Japan, and Southeast Asia and belonging to the botanical Theaceae family. Like other shrubs and trees, there are a large variety of camellia species and cultivars whose blooms come in a many forms: single, double, rose, peony, anemone, etc. What sets this genus apart from others is it’s bloom time. Camellia are noted for blooming from fall to winter. A time of year most flowering trees and shrubs are dormant, especially in cold climates like mine. However, with their unique bloom cycle, camellias allow warmer climates such as the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and California to boast of vibrant winter color.
Grow Camellia Indoors
I fell in love with camellias several years ago on visits to the Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC, but I despaired of ever growing them due to my subarctic winters. I was sure I couldn’t grow anything as lovely as these…
…but after my trip to the conservatory followed by some research, I’ve learned it’s possible. Granted, growing a camellia in the bonsai tradition may be a stretch, but a typical container grown camellia is doable. It’ll take some effort, but it can be done. Here’s how:
Know your plant
Four factors are crucial to successfully grow camellias indoors: temperature, water, light and fertilizer
Temperature – Camellias need lower temperatures during the winter for a period of dormancy (dormancy occurs during their bloom time). They’ll thrive best in temps below 60 degrees F. Lower temps are fine, but keep in mind the roots don’t like to be frozen.
Water – Camellias don’t like wet soil around the roots. Use a well draining soil mixture to prevent root rot. Avoid commercial potting mixes as most of them have added fertilizer. A mix you can depend upon is 80% ground aged bark (pine/fir/cedar – found at most garden centers), 10 % builders sand (a little more course than play sand) and 10% peat moss (be frugal with the peat moss). Additionally, a smaller pot is better than a larger one in order to avoid standing water. The soil should remain moist, but not wet. Water thoroughly when necessary (fill the pot to the brim once or twice), but refrain from watering if only the surface is dry. Over-watering can cause suffocation and/or phytophthora, a root rot disease. One final note, once buds are set watch that the root ball doesn’t dry out.
Light – Inside, set the camellia near a south facing window as they prefer direct inside light. An artificial, full spectrum light can also be used. Outside, when temps warm up (all danger of frost is gone), move your camellia outside to a protected, shady spot. Acclimate your camellia to its new outside home gradually taking care that the camellia is not in direct light. It’s easy to sunburn the leaves.
Fertilizer – It’s important to understand the camellia’s root and growth cycle before fertilizing. Camellias are light feeders with surface roots. More camellias are damaged/lost by ferllizing mistakes than by omitting fieeding. A few good things to remember:
- Don’t fertilize during the dormant period. (Camellias are dormant when developing buds and blooming.) From early September through the blooming period camellias can be severaly damaged/killed if a regular camellia-azalea-rhodendron fertilizer is applied. However, you can use a monthly application of a low-nitrogen (2-10-10) or no-nitrogen (0-10-10) bloom enhancer.
- Never use ordenary garden fertilizers on your camellias. Instead, choose one specifically formulated for camellias-azealas, or better yet, use conttenseed meal.
- Always water thoroughly the day before fertilizing — never fertilize a dry/thirsty plant.
- Refrain from fertilizing an anemic plant–one with yellow leaves from lack of iron. Insstead, use a chelated iron feeding before applying the camellias fertilizer.
- As with most plants, don’t fetilize during extreme heat as this will damage the roots.
- DO fertilize camellias during their growing season. Once buds appear active, usually after blooming finishes, is a great time. Blood meal can be used sparingly during initial spring growth.
One final tip, camellias can be encouraged to branch through pruning. This should be done after the plant blooms but before it sets new flower buds.
If you currently grow camellias indoors during the winter months or are interested in giving it a try, be sure to leave a comment. Would love to hear from you!