Next to the rose, no flower is more beautiful or more useful than the camellia. It may readily be so managed that its natural season of blooming shall be from October to March, thus coming in at a time when roses can hardly be had without forcing. In every quality, with the single exception of scent, the camellia may be pronounced the equal of the rose. It can be used in all combinations or for all purposes for which roses can be employed. In form and color it is probably more perfect, and fully as brilliant. It is equally or more durable, either on the plant or as a cut flower. It is a little dearer to buy, and perhaps slightly more difficult to cultivate; but like most plants the camellia has crucial periods in its life, when it needs special treatment. That given, it may be grown with the utmost ease; that withheld, its culture becomes precarious, or a failure. The camellia is so hardy that it will live in the open air in many parts of Great Britain, and herein lies a danger to many cultivators. Because it is quite or almost hardy, they keep it almost cool. This is all very well if the cool treatment be not carried to extremes, and persisted in all the year round.
Camellias in a dormant state will live and thrive in any temperature above the freezing point, and will take little or no hurt if subjected to from 3°-4° below it, or a temperature of 27° Fahr.
They will also bloom freely in a temperature of 40°, though 45° suits them better. Hence, during the late summer and early autumn it is hardly possible to keep camellias too cool either out of doors or in. They are also particularly sensitive to heat just before the flower-buds begin to swell in late autumn or winter; a sudden or sensible rise of temperature at that stage sends the flower-buds off in showers. This is what too often happens, in fact, to the camellias of amateurs. No sooner do the buds begin to show then a natural impatience seizes the possessor's of well-budded camellias to have the flowers opened. More warmth, a closer atmosphere, is brought to bear upon them, and down fall the buds in showers on stage or floor - the chief cause of this slip between the buds and the open flowers being a rise of temperature. A close or arid atmosphere often leads to the same results. Camellias can hardly have too free a circulation of air or too low a temperature. Another frequent cause of buds dropping arises from either too little or too much water at the roots. Either a paucity or excess of water at the roots should lead to identical results. Most amateurs overwater their camellias during their flowering stages.
Seeing so many buds expanding, they naturally rush to the conclusion that a good deal of water must be used to fill them to bursting point. But the opening of camellia buds is less a manufacture than a mere development, and the strain on the plant and drain on the roots is far less during this stage than many suppose. Of course the opposite extreme of over-dry roots must be provided against, else this would also cause the plants to cast off their buds.
But our object now is less to point out how buds are to be developed into fully expanded flowers than to show how they were to be formed in plenty, and the plants preserved in robust health year after year. One of the simplest and surest modes of reaching this desirable end is to adopt a system of semi-tropical treatment for two months or so after flowering. The moment or even before the late blooms fade, the plants should be pruned if necessary. Few plants bear the knife better than camellias, though it is folly to cut them unless they are too tall or too large for their quarters or have grown out of form. As a rule healthy camellias produce sufficient or even a redundancy of shoots without cutting back; but should they need pruning, after flowering is the best time to perform the operation.
During the breaking of the tender leaves and the growth of the young shoots in their first stages, the plant should be shaded from direct sunshine, unless, indeed, they are a long way from the glass, when the diffusion and dispersion of the rays of light tone down or break their scorching force; few young leaves and shoots are more tender and easily burned than camellia, and scorching not only disfigures the plants, but also hinders the formation of fine growths and the development of flower-buds.
The atmosphere during the early season of growth may almost touch saturation. It must not fail to be genial, and this geniality of the air must be kept up by the surface-sprinkling of paths, floors, stages, walls, and the plants themselves at least twice a day.
With the pots or border well drained it is hardly possible to overwater the roots of camellias during their period of wood-making. The temperature may range from 50° to 65° during most of the period. As the flower-buds form, and become more conspicuous, the tropical treatment may become less and less tropical, until the camellias are subjected to the common treatment of greenhouse or conservatory plants in summer. Even at this early stage it is wise to attend to the thinning of the buds. Many varieties of camellias - notably that most useful of all varieties, the double white - will often set and swell five or ten times more buds than it ought to be allowed to carry. Nothing is gained, but a good deal is lost, by allowing so many embryo flower-buds to be formed or partially developed. It is in fact far wiser to take off the majority of the excess at the earliest possible point, so as to concentrate the strength of the plant into those that remain.
As it is, however, often a point of great moment to have a succession of camellia flowers for as long a period as possible on the same plants, buds of all sizes should be selected to remain. Fortunately, it is found in practice that the plants, unless overweighted with blooms, do not cast off the smaller or later buds in their efforts to open their earlier and larger ones. With the setting, thinning, and partial swelling of the flower-buds the semi-tropical treatment of camellias must close; continued longer, the result would be their blooming out of season, or more probably their not blooming at all.
The best place for camellias from the time of setting their flower-buds to their blooming season is a vexed question, which can hardly be said to have been settled as yet. They may either be left in a cool greenhouse, or placed in a shaded, sheltered position in the open air. Some of the finest camellias ever seen have been placed in the open air from June to October. These in some cases have been stood behind south, and in others behind west walls. Those facing the east in their summer quarters were, on the whole, the finest, many of them being truly magnificent plants, not a few of them having been imported direct from Florence at a time when camellias were far less grown in England than now.
In all cases where camellias are placed in the open air in summer, care will be taken to place the pots on worm proof bases, and to shield the tops from direct sunshine from 10 to 4 o'clock. If these two points are attended to, and also shelter from high winds, it matters little where they stand. In all cases it is well to place camellias under glass shelter early in October, less for fear of cold than of saturating rains causing a sodden state of the soil in the pots.
While adverting, however, to the safety and usefulness of placing camellias in the open air in summer, it must not be inferred that this is essential to the successful culture; it is, in fact, far otherwise, as the majority of the finest camellias in the country are planted out in conservatories with immovable roofs. Many such houses are, however, treated to special semi-tropical treatment as has been described, and are kept as cool and open as possible after the flower-buds are fairly set, so that the cultural and climatic conditions approximate as closely as possible to those here indicated.
Soil and seasons of potting may be described as vexed questions in camellia culture. As to the first, some affect pure loam, others peat only, yet more a half and half of both, with a liberal proportion of gritty sand, or a little smashed charcoal or bruised bones as porous or feeding agents, or both. Most growers prefer the mixture, and as good camellias are grown in each of its constituents, it follows without saying that they may also be well grown in various proportions of both.
Under rather than over potting suits the plants best, and the best time is doubtless just before they are about to start into fresh growth, though many good cultivators elect to shift their plants in the late summer or autumn, that is, soon after the growth is finishing, and the flower-buds fairly and fully set for the next season. From all which it is obvious that the camellia is not only among the most useful and showy, but likewise among the most accommodating of plants.
Under good cultivation it is also one of the cleanest, though when scab gets on it, it is difficult to get rid of it. Mealy-bugs also occasionally make a hurried visit to camellias when making their growth, as well as aphides. But the leaves once formed and advanced to semi-maturity are too hard and leathery for such insects, while they will bear scale being rubbed off them with impunity. But really well-grown camellias, as a rule, are wholly free from insect pests, and their clean, dark, glossy leaves are only of secondary beauty to their brilliant, exquisitely formed, and many sized flowers. - D.T., The Gardeners' Chronicle.