Can you help this camellia?

jacqueline9CAMarch 8, 2013

Here is a picture of my very old (at least 50 years, possibly more) camellia. It is blooming OK, but the leaves are very yellowish. Last year after it bloomed I did feed it with acid plant food - what else can I do? It used to grow under a very large tree, which got cut down last year. However, it had yellowish leaves before that, too. Any suggestions would be very welcome! (also any guesses as to who it is).


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Good morning, Jackie. I cannot see the leaves clearly up close but they look like the tree may have iron chlorosis. This is usually treatable and makes the leaves turn yellowish, except for the leaves' veins which remain dark green. If you can confirm that this is how the leaves appear, you can acidify the soil by applying any one of the following solutions: green sand, iron sulfate, garden sulphur or iron-chelated liquids. Green sand is usually available in organic minded stores while the others are usually available at most nurseries and big stores. The liquids will correct the problem faster but you will still need to apply whatever solution you select several times (so it may take a month or more) per the label instructions.

Another possibility: During this time of the year when the deciduous shrubbery & trees do not shade the camellias, you can see some bronzing of leaves. This problem is temporary and goes away when the shrubs leaf out. This should affect the whole leaf, including the veins and should only be noticed in leaves that are in direct contact with the sun.

If the problem is iron chlorosis, you will need to do this regularly. I do it every Spring and sometimes have to redo it in the late summer months. The solutions mentioned above do not contain nitrogen so they can be used as often and whenever the label directions say without triggering growth during the winter months.

Watering too much can also trigger this type of response from camellias and other shrubs but it should go away if one waters less.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2013 at 11:07AM
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Luis - thank you so much! I have attached a close up picture of the leaves - any further thoughts? The veins do not appear to be greener than the rest of the leaves. Also, the leaves way down at the bottom of the plant are all nice and green.


    Bookmark   March 8, 2013 at 2:13PM
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I am wondering if the shrub has developed root rot from spores naturally occuring in the soil plus drainage issues. Have you inspected the root system by any chance?

The problem may be related whatever caused you to remove the tree. What was the reason you removed the tree that shaded the camellia?

    Bookmark   March 9, 2013 at 8:39AM
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The tree was a gigantic 80 year old eugenia. This is a tropical evergreen (in our climate) that has very dense leaves and thus shade 12 months of the year. It was starting to shade out about 70% of our front garden (the other 30% was and is shaded by our huge scarlet oak, but only in the Summer) - the roses were declining, the lawn was going to moss, etc. etc. Also, the eugenia drops little red berries about 10 months of the year, and it was dropping them on the brick path which goes right up to our front door - they stain! We have another equally large eugenia (see pic) in the back yard. Anyway, that's why we took the tree out. There was nothing wrong with it that I know of. The roses and the lawn have recuperated.

We are in a Mediterranean climate where it does not rain for 6 months of the year during our very dry Summers. So, we do irrigate. This camellia gets water for 20 minutes about 3 times a week in the Summer - is that enough to be too much?

Thank you so much for helping me -


    Bookmark   March 9, 2013 at 10:27AM
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Holy, Toledo. That is a big tree and a great photo. It sure puts things in perspective.

I am on the way out but I will post another msg shortly.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2013 at 10:56AM
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I have a suspicion that the tree and its enormous root system affected the camellia. They both competed for water, minerals and sunlight. The dense growth of the tree, its root system and its canopy stunts plants that are grown close to it.

I noticed that the growth of the camellia is very thin and spindly. It suggests that it has been trying to reach for more sunlight. The growth in the second picture showed some stems as not smooth all the way, which sometimes suggests places where the plant lost leaves in past years or where there was insect damage to the leaves so, as the plant heals, the stems are not smooth. Happens with plants that are stressed or weak.

The yellowing could be a mineral deficiency and too much sun… now that nothing shades it like it used to. The mineral deficiency may be from the plant and the tree competing for the same supply of minerals. A soil test can tell you how the soil is doing. The impact of the sun now makes the leaves in direct contact with the sun appear lite green or yellow and the ones protected from the sun (further down) are dark green as they normally should be.

The cause of the spotting on the leaves cannot be 100% determined unless you take the leaves for analysis at your Agriculture Extension Service in a clear plastic tightly sealed bag/envelope. Cold damage can cause some spotting. Older growth that is about to fall can also show spotting. Competition for minerals and-or root rot issues can rob the plant from food, which weakens it and makes it susceptible to fungal attacks. You could very, very carefully dig a few roots to see if they appear healthy to you in order to rule out root rot.

You now need to encourage the plant to fix itself and you can start by making a soil test, check the soil pH (can be a problem in some areas of California), adding some fertilizers and pruning it.

You could start by pruning 1/3 of the plant after it has finished blooming. Yes, it may look worse but it will improve as the plant naturally rejuvenates in Spring months. This will hopefully stop the decline so, there is nothing to loose. In future years, you should also use a technique called pinching to force the plant to become bushier by pinching off the ends of the stems in Spring when the plants starts to leaf out.

As for fertilizers, you can add some cottonseed meal, Holly-tone or a general purpose slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote 10-10-10. During the rest of the growing season, you can use some liquid fish, liquid seaweed and-or coffee grounds to supply minor trace elements. Use the recommended rate for the product (see the label directions) at half the specified rate on the first application and you can increase as the plant responds; you do not want to dump a ton of fertilizers on a stressed plant until it begins to improve, and especially since you are cutting it back. Add 3-4 inches of organic mulch up to the drip line. You can use pine needles or pine bark which are acidic but if they are not available, any other type of mulch should work.

Use a soil pH kit available from most nurseries to see if the soil is acidic or alkaline. If it shows to be alkaline, apply some of the amendments mentioned above.

I am not sure of how much water the plant is getting. The number of gallons is a function of the nozzle size, the pressure in the system and the sprinkler unit. A landscape company who knows your manufacturer's products can help determine the amount of water that the camellia gets in 20 minutes. Times three times a week.


    Bookmark   March 10, 2013 at 4:35PM
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Luis, thank you very much again! I will prune it and feed it as per your instructions. I hadn't used mulch in years past, as the tree provided a deep layer of leaf litter, but now I will. My DH makes real compost for me - we have bags & bags of it, so I will use that. After it finishes blooming I will prune it - hopefully it will start improving.


    Bookmark   March 10, 2013 at 7:56PM
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A thick layer of mulch helps waterings last longer because the top part of the mulch dries out first and preserves moisture on the soil for lobger periods. Camellias have a lot of small roots near the surface that absorb water (and minerals) so it helps to keep the topmost few inches moist. To know when to water, use the finger method and water when the soil feels almost dry or dry at a depth of 4". You can use the finger method daily for about two weeks. Check early in the mornings and make a note in a wall calendar whenever you water. After 2-3 weeks, review the notes on the calendar and determine how often you had to water. If you had to water every 4 days, for example, then set the sprinkler to water every 4 days.

One last question regarding sun exposure... since the tree is gone, what now provides afternoon shade to the camellia during the worst of the summer months?

    Bookmark   March 10, 2013 at 9:29PM
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Re afternoon shade - not much. There is a small maple tree right next to the camellia, that protects it from the setting Western sun a bit, but not like the tree did.


    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 11:10AM
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Ok, keep the plant under observation (especially in the summer this year) to see if it "complains" much about the sunlight before taking additional actions, i.e., wait and see if the new growth this spring adapts/acclimates to the increased light.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 12:52PM
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I planted a camellia about 3 or 4 years ago and its leaves are yellowed with spots just like yours. My husband turned off the automatic sprinklers and forgot to turn them on for about a week, and I wondered if that was why, but last year it had some yellow spotted leaves, too - just not as many. I haven't fertilized it so maybe that's the problem. We got new neighors several months ago and their cat has been hanging out in our yard a lot. I don't know if that has anything to do with it. So I'm interested to see if something helps your camillia.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2013 at 7:11PM
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Turning off the sprinkler for a week during this time of the year should just produce browning of leaves. But you and I are in good company. I also did what you mention several years ago but, the sprinkler unit was turned off for maybe 3 weeks or so. The winter on that year was dry and one of the camellias had started to display browned out leaves throughout the whole bush.

Hard to tell how the lack of fertilizer might have affected it since this could be a function of several things, like soil moisture content, soil pH and existing levels of minerals in the soil. But I have forgotten to fertilize before and have not noticed yellowing before so I am leery to think that also did it.

Some yellowing around May and June may be normal as that is around the time when some of the old leaves are dropped. For some reason, I tend to notice that more with the sasanquas. But I may notice it more because of the plant's location.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2013 at 7:20AM
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