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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Camelias Not for the Inexperienced Gardener in the Desert

Q. I wonder if you can help me diagnose a problem with my camellia, the variety is "Marie Bracey". I had it in a container while it was young and my husband moved it for me to our back yard where it gets the morning sun and afternoon shade which is what the card read that was attached. It was growing fine but now there are about 30  leaves that have brown tips. Another question, the card says to cut back after flowering, which has not happened yet but it does not explain how to cut it and to what level.

A. You are fighting an “uphill battle” growing camellias in the Las Vegas valley since they require similar conditions to azaleas and rhododendrons. Not that you can’t do  it but it will take quite a bit of care on your part.

There are camellia societies, the counterparts to rose societies, on the southern east coastal areas and west coastal areas and inland in northern California. You have the Japanese camellia type. These plants are medium to large shrubs and even trees so it may take some time for it to get big enough to flower.

Link to International Camelia Society
Link to American Camelia Society
Nice link to information and pictures of Camelias

Another camellia I know you are familiar with is Chinese camellia, the plant that is used to make teas like black teas, green teas and Oolongs. So this plant does not come from the desert parts of the world. This will give you some insight as to what you will have to do; improve the soil a lot and give it some protection from the harsh desert environment.

You did that by following the card attached to it. But just a warning. That card was not intended for Las Vegas but for more friendly camellia environments so you may need to take what it says a step further. Even morning sun may be too intense for it if it extends into late morning and thus contribute to the browning of the leaf edges.

Other things that can contribute to leaf scorch are the poor soil conditions we have and the salty water coming from Lake Mead to our taps. Those people with well water frequently have much better water than the water coming from our taps.

Another problem you will most likely have will be yellowing leaves. Camellias like the soil to be slightly acid and our soils are not. This will mean that iron will be tough for the plant to get in a form it can use.

The only way to provide that kind of iron is to make the soil more acid or give it iron in a form it can use. Lots of decayed or decaying organic material will help in the soil around the roots and on the soil surface on top of the roots.

Sulfur applications will also help but the sulfur should be pulverized into a powder, not like little rocks if it is to be effective. So usually the more effective way to apply iron so the plant can use it is to use chelates. Like the broken record I am, the chelate EDDHA combined with the iron is the most effective way for iron to reach the plants in our soils.
Sulfur granules applied to the soil surface two years later. The granules are too
large and breakdown slowly. Also these plants are on drip irrigation so the
sulfur never comes in contact with water ...unless it rains...in the desert?

So what to do? Make sure the plant had lots of GOOD compost mixed into the soil at planting time. I would also put some sulfur with that planting soil. If you are not sure, replant it carefully this fall around the first week of October.

Mulch the soil surface with organic or wood mulch. This is very important with camellia since it has a very shallow root system. Make sure the soil drains easily. Find a place that gives it early morning sun and not late morning sun, out of strong winds and not near a hot wall. Filtered light from a tree that allows scattered light on the ground with plenty of air movement (but not strong wind) would even be better but not total shade.

Next spring after all danger of frost has passed (usually around the first to the middle of March) fertilize the plant with an azalea or rose fertilizer and add iron chelate as well. Expect that your camellia will not be picture perfect since it is not growing in an ideal climate and soil. Contact me next spring and let me know how it is doing and we can take it to the next step.

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