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The Camellia is a traditional garden favorite for hardiness zones 6-9. Their evergreen leaves provide shade, bird habitat and year-round garden privacy. Some top out at six feet while others achieve heights of 15’ or more. And because Camellias have been cultivated and hybridized for many years, there are bloom options to fit just about any garden. And, those blooms may be single-pedaled or deeply ruffled like an antique rose. Plus, gardeners may select from the Camellia sasanquas, which bloom from fall to winter. Or, they may opt for Camellia japonicas, which bloom during spring. And, for those looking to add to their edible plant collection, the tea-leaf Camellia sinensis may be an ideal choice.
In general, Camellias should be pruned like most woody trees or shrubs.* And, because they don’t get very big, usually you can get the job done with a pair of bypass pruners and a handsaw. When approaching a Camellia, the first step is to remove any dead material from the interior of the plant. Because Camellias are dense, the plants often allow interior leaves and stems to die back each season. This is a part of the natural growth habit, and this material should be removed each year, allowing light and air to flow through the plant’s interior.
Once the dead material is removed, begin cutting away any broken branches as well as any suckers growing from the base of the tree. Then, as a last set of cuts, remove any unwanted branches that may be rubbing against a building, sticking out in a path or blocking a view. Keep track of how much living material you are removing from the plant, and limit your cuts to remove no more than one third of the plant each year.
When making cuts, be sure to remove entire branches to the point where they connect to another branch, and try not to damage the raised ridge at this connection point on the plant. This ridge is where the plant will build up walls to protect itself from your cuts and any potential pests or diseases that try to infiltrate the tree once you have finished pruning.
Because different types of Camellias bloom at different times of year and because they are evergreen, figuring out the best time to prune them can be tricky. For Camellias that bloom in fall or winter – usually the Camellia sasanqua and sinensis groups – finish your pruning in late winter or early spring. (If you are pruning your C. sinensis for tea leaves, you may also do tip pruning to harvest during the active spring growing season as well.) In some cases, both of these Camellia species will bloom well into early spring. If this happens, prune your shrub immediately after it finishes flowering. If your Camellia is a consistent spring bloomer – usually the Camellia japonica group – prune your plant as it is blooming or immediately after. By pruning your shrubs at these times, you should be allowing your plants sufficient time to develop new flower buds for the year to come. However, if you wait too long, and prune them late, you may end up cutting all of next year’s flower buds off in the process.
*Camellias can be sheared as a hedge. However, because they are large-leaved and slow growing, they may not be ideal choices for this purpose. However, to maintain your hedge, follow the basic rules for shearing detailed here, and remember that the timing rule still applies if you want your Camellia hedge to bloom.