Camellias blush openly in February

White edges on pink petals of "Jordan's Pride" make this camellia japonica a backyard favorite. Many blooms will be double and long lasting. Peggy Harris / TMT

Malibu Garden Column/By Peggy Harris

While camellia shrubs sit like wallflowers in sun-filtered, shaded areas during the summer months, the subtle to brilliant white, pink and red color tones of camellia flowers will steal the show in February. The perfectly shaped Japonica varieties usually bloom later in the camellia season, which can start as early as October and reaches its peak in February. By mixing varieties of camellias, one can achieve camellia blooms for almost half a year. The Sasanqua variety has a looser flower and more double flowers; equally impressive new cultivars are available. If the easy care and shade-loving nature of camellias are not enough to make you want to add them to you landscape, treat yourself to visit the nearby International Camellia Garden of Excellence. Descanso Gardens in La Canada (near Glendale off the 210 Freeway) is in the midst of its annual camellia festival. This garden has more than 40,000 mature camellias growing under established oaks. Visit the Web site for details or call 818.952.4408.

Choosing a camellia depends on landscape requirements and personal taste. Visit local nurseries to see the new cultivars. New white introductions like Swan Lake, pink blooms with red shading, Carter’s Sunburst and new crimson red colors, Nuccio’s Bella Rosa, are examples of the wide variety available. Cultivars are constantly being developed, which have longer bloom periods, larger flowers and greater resistance to fungus. For the largest collection of camellias, visit Nuccio’s Nursery in Pasadena.

Caring for camellias is actually very simple. They should be planted in a hole larger than the root mass, but not much deeper. One source suggests placing a brick in the hole to keep the plant from sinking. Soil should be slightly acid (6-6.5 PH.) Once planted, water the camellia at the roots. This means at the drip line, which is where rainwater would naturally fall on the roots. Overhead watering is not recommended. Camellias do not need much water once they are established, but they do best with a regular schedule of drip irrigation while they are growing.

Keep the area around the base of the camellia clean. To combat the fungus, which causes browning of flowers and leaves, clean the spent flowers from the base of the plant. Camellias do not need much pruning. They mostly form their own shape. Pruning to cut a dead branch or to remove blooms is all that is usually necessary. Pruning to improve air circulation will also help cut down on the fungus problem.

Cutting the flowers to use in arrangements of displays indoors prolongs the enjoyment. Try setting the camellias in a shallow dish of water, or on wet paper towels. The variety of display potential is as great as the floral designer’s imagination. Visit a camellia show to see the many ways to display these varied blooms.

Fungus is the one disease problem that plagues the camellia grower. The brown leaves and brown scarring at flower bud are signs of fungus. Keeping the base of the plant clean from dropped flowers is the best defense because the fungus spores live on the ground. Brian Sullivan of Descansco Gardens recommends water only at the base, cleaning up all dropped flowers and mulching with clean materials. “The home gardener can practice clean habits to minimize the effects of the fungus, but will probably never be completely rid of it,” Sullivan said. At Descanso Gardens, they just live with it and they have millions of beautiful blooms each year.

Feeding advice from the Descanso Garden is to feed only twice a year, once in November and again in June. After the camellia finishes blooming in March or April, new buds will begin appearing in May and June. The buds, which will be next year’s flowers, are set by July. The Descanso staff feeds cottonseed meal – one to two handfuls per shrub (many camellias could be called trees due to their age and height.) The cottonseed meal gives the plant an extra boost to form its flowers for the next year.

The winter lighting and the camellia blooms at Descanso Gardens reach their peak around Valentine’s Day each year.

Bare root fruit trees are also available in nurseries now. Pick varieties appropriate to your climate zone and the sites available on your property. Plant them quickly in a good hole with organic amendments.

Peggy Harris of PM Harris Landscape Design can be reached for questions or garden consultations at or 805.986.6965.