Camellias are aristocrats of the garden. They dazzle us with spectacular blooms of red, rose, pink, white, and bicolors backed by glossy, evergreen foliage. Some form compact mounds, but the majority grow upright into the shape and size of a small tree. Inevitably, many grow bigger than you want and you have to prune. But when is the best time? That depends on the species of camellia.
Here in the South, two species (and their hybrids) make up the majority of camellias planted. Common camellia (Camellia japonica) is the most popular. It forms a dense plant 10 to 20 feet tall and wide, depending on the selection and location. Flowers appear from mid-winter to early spring. Prune after the last flowers fall, usually in spring or very early summer. This gives the plant plenty of time to set new flower buds for the following year. If you hack it back from midsummer through fall, you’ll cut off most of the flower buds, ruin the subsequent show, and greatly disappoint Grumpy.
Sasanqua camellia (Camellia sasanqua) is the second most popular species. It’s more open and graceful than its cousin and also smaller, generally reaching 6 to 15 feet tall and wide. Flowers usually open in late summer, fall, and early winter. As with common camellia, prune soon after its last blossoms drop.
How to Prune Camellias
Without pruning, common camellia grows into hulking, dense blobs difficult to incorporate into small, residential gardens. Do not plant it beneath or between ground-floor windows, next to small porches, or in any cramped location! You’ll disappoint me again! When you prune, shorten branches by cutting back to a leaf or a larger branch. Also, thin out the inside growth so that sun and air can reach all the leaves. Do this by removing dead, crossing, wayward, or rubbing branches. Upright-growing sasanquas are less thick and blobby, but the same principles apply.
One trick I use for both types in my yard is pruning off all side branches growing from the main trunks up to a height of three to four feet. Bare, limbed-up camellia trunks sport the same sculptural aspect as those of crepe myrtles trained into tree forms. Not only does this eliminate blobbiness, but it also provides room to add small, complementary perennials around the base, such as autumn fern, variegated mondo grass, strawberry begonia, sedges, yellow sweet flag, hellebores, and spring bulbs.
Go forth and prune correctly.