Photos by Mary Henry: Tree Talk columnist Steve Lorton says camellias are a lovely broadleaved evergreen tree worthy of preserving in your yard, not whacking back.
Photos by Mary Henry: Tree Talk columnist Steve Lorton says camellias are a lovely broadleaved evergreen tree worthy of preserving in your yard, not whacking back.

Whenever I hear anyone use the phrase “camellia bush,” I shudder. For me, it’s a bit like hearing an ethnic slur.

While there are some camellias in this genus of roughly 80 species, which do grow as shrubs, far and away, the majority of camellias that we see and enjoy at this time of year are either Camellia japonicas, which can reach a height of 45 feet, or hybrids that are equally statuesque.

What most likely has happened when you see a camellia that is short and roundish is that some, hum? What is the word? Bozo! Some ignoramus has gone after this noble plant and whacked it back to keep it from reaching its full size, thereby robbing the garden and the world of a magnificent broadleaved evergreen tree that rewards us with a spectacular bloom show about this time of year.

Camellias grow happily in the Pacific Northwest, for the most part undemandingly, in our cool, moist climate and acid soil. In general, give them light shade, a light broadcasting of plant food or an annual top dressing of compost. This not only ensures a healthy plant, it encourages a robust flower crop.

If you use a chemical fertilizer, make the application light. Soak the ground around the plant well. Scatter the plant food. I use a 12-12-12 mix (or thereabouts) in an easily remembered cycle of holidays: Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day, Memorial Day and The Fourth of July. A half cup evenly cast in a circle, 5 feet in diameter, around the trunk of the plant is ample. Then sprinkle with water again, dampening the freshly applied plant food to assure that it doesn’t blow away, ending up in our water system.

When you put a camellia in the ground, place it where it can grow to its potential. The northeast corner of a house or garden structure is ideal, or placed where the camellia is shaded on the south or west by a wall or taller plantings. Don’t site it under a window, where it will grow up, blocking light and view.

However, should you have made that egregious error, don’t be seized by the whacking urge. Better this: dig and move the plant next fall rather than going after it with your pruners. A camellia is easy to move if it is under 3 feet in height. Larger plants will die if you disturb them. Just be certain to keep any transplant well irrigated for its first three summers.

As a camellia grows, groom it as you would a Japanese maple. Allow it to stretch up and out, cutting back the occasional errant branch that grows long and floppy or shoots into the interior of the plant, crossing other branches. You want a trunk that is strong, with branches that grow up and gently angle away from the trunk. Thus, the camellia assumes its natural elegant form.

Always prune after the flower drop. You won’t lose the beauty of bloom, and the camellia will have the remainder of the growing season to set next year’s flower buds. Camellias also make excellent container plants. Give them generous pots and, as they grow larger and larger, increase the size of the container. Be empathetic. You wouldn’t want your size 11 foot stuffed into a size 9 shoe.

If you have an established plant that is large but suffered from years of indiscriminate whackery, you can give that plant a new life. Always prune from the inside out and the bottom up, never cut from the top of the plant down or from the sides in. Start by going into the middle of the plant, removing all the dead wood. Then thin out the interior with an eye to the ultimate form you want. Go slowly. Make a cut. Step back, eyeball your work, go in for the next branch or limb removal. You can always take it off. You cannot put it back.

Camellias deserve respect. Native to Eastern Asia, these plants have been a beloved element of American horticulture for centuries. In 1786, French botanist Andre Michaux introduced camellias to Middleton Place, a 65-acre garden near Charleston, South Carolina. One of those plants, now more than 232 years old, still lives. Likely they arrived in Seattle shortly before the turn of the 19th century, when the first of the city’s grand houses needed grand gardens.

Camellias will not win prizes in speed races, but they’ll grow steadily. Treat them lovingly and, in time, you’ll have a noble, small scale garden tree. It’s thick, glossy, dark evergreen leaves, beautiful year around, especially glistening in our winter drizzle. Then, voila! Spring arrives and the plant will explode in ravishing bloom and say to you, “Ah ha! Did you really think it wasn’t possible to love me more?”