February 2016
The Magic of Gardening

My Camellia’s Not Blooming!

  Camellia japonica “Blood of China”

When people have older homes with old camellias around them, I often hear the following question: "I have had a camellia near my home for many years and it has never bloomed (or has quit blooming). It does produce plenty of bloom buds, but they never open. Do you have any idea why this happens?"

The disorder described is commonly called bull nose and the exact cause is not known. In general, this disorder is thought to be either an environmental or genetic problem. The environmental issues that could cause this could be as simple as a light problem or wide temperature fluctuations. Camellias bloom best when they get about three hours of intense morning light followed by filtered light and late afternoon shade. In deep shade, the foliage may do fine, but they may never bloom well.

Other environmental concerns may be excessive fertility (especially too much nitrogen) and alkaline soils. Normally, Alabama doesn’t have alkaline soils (except in our Black Belt area) but it is possible – especially near houses with mortar or brick work. If you fertilize with nitrogen, you may want to quit for a couple years (near the plant root system) and see what happens.

The best soil for camellias contains humus or well-decomposed organic matter, is slightly acid and is highly retentive of moisture but drains well. In camellia culture, the value of organic matter cannot be overemphasized, since it improves aeration and drainage, and adds moderately to soil acidity.

Pruning at the wrong time can be a problem. Camellias require only light pruning, if any, to remove dead wood, to shape into compact plants and to thin inside limbs to increase air movement. Do not shear plants or make multi-headed back cuts. The best time to prune is after blooming and before new flower and vegetative buds form. We primarily grow two types in our area. Camellia sasanqua blooms in the fall and should be pruned in late winter and Camellia japonica blooms from December until March and should be pruned just after blooming is completed or no later than June.

If the plant has never bloomed, the problem may be genetic in nature. That simply means it does not have the capacity to bloom in your climate or your specific microclimate no matter what you do. It may do fine in another area, but is genetically unsuited for your situation. In that case, you should enjoy the other fine qualities of the plant, or remove and replace it with another camellia cultivar or a completely different plant. Late-winter-blooming cultivars of Camellia japonica tend to bull nose worse than earlier-blooming cultivars of the same species and Camellia sasanquas seldom have this problem.

The large, winter-blooming Camellia japonica is our state flower and is certainly a beautiful addition to any Alabama landscape. In general, they are tough, pest-resistant plants that perform well with minimal care. However, all plants require some care to keep them performing at their best. To learn more about this exotic beauty, visit one of the camellia shows across the state and South. You may find out where these shows are by visiting http://mobilecamellia.org/.

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.