Camellia Dying?

pattysheehanMarch 22, 2014

My cameliia was covered all winter with the white garden cover material. I took the cover off the other day and the leaves are in various stages of looking bad...some are brown, some are yellow, some are very light, almost silvery green. They are curled up and very dry. The leaves closer to the house side of the bush look a little better...they are more of a deep green and don't feel as dry, although they are curled.

It is planted up against the corner of the house, southern exposure. The lower third of the bush is protected by a retaining wall on one side and a fence on the other so it sort of sits in the corner of where these 2 meet. It's about 10-12 feet tall. We have owned the for 20 years and it was here when we bought, and at the time it was probably about 6-8 feet tall. We are guessing it could be 30-40 years old. We know it's at least 20.

We have had an exceptionally cold winter here, with snow and "polar vortex" temperatures for extended periods of time, but I had hoped that by covering it, it would be OK. It was covered from December through March 18.

We did use the same white cover last year, and when we uncovered the camellia last Spring it was fine, so I don't think it had anything to do with the density of the cover. The cover does bunch up around the base of the bush some, but again, it did the same thing last year with no problem.

I did put some Hollytone on it when I uncovered it and watered it in well, but I don't know if I should continue to water daily, or would that be too much water?

I know it sounds silly but I'm kind of attached to this bush, and it makes me sad to see it looking so sickly, because it has been such a vibrant beautiful bush for so many years.

Any thoughts or suggestions are much appreciated.

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Hello, pattysheehan. The curling that you observe could be caused by leaf gall, a common fungal infection. Cooler weather and lots of rain promote this infection in or near new growth. Affected leaves can turn light green/yellowish and, at times, curl/bend. The affected light green/yellowish leaves can also develop reddish to brownish areas as well as galls. In extreme cases, the leaves can look like bits and pieces of the leaves outer skin are breaking off; the center and secondary veins may turn reddish too.

You can prune off the affected areas of the shrub (remember to sterilize the tools after you are done). It primarily affects sasanquas but can be seen in others too. Get rid of galls before they begin to release more spores. Wind and splashed water helps spread the disease so try to water the soil -never the leaves- early in the mornings to minimize spread of the disease. Consider replacing the mulch with new mulch in heavy infestations.

I have seen recommendation of using fungicides prior to leaf out (the fungus hides in the closed leaf buds thru winter). Horticultural oils have been claimed to be effective in preventing the problem. It is just not clear to me how well these work once the plant has the disease.

Lastly, do not panic. This disease rarely causes death of the plants. It just looks ugly and may have, at times, a high degree of an Eeeek! factor. :o)

Here is more information on leaf gall so you can compare against what you see:

Other information: do not fertilize plants that are stressed. Do not water the shrub a lot (daily for example) either, as this increases moisture levels, which the fungus loves. Just water as usual or use the finger method: insert a finger into the soil to a depth of about 4â and water the soil early in the mornings if the soil feels dry or almost dry. You can use the finger method daily for 2-3 weeks. Make a note on a wall calendar each time that you water. After the 2-3 weeks, review how many times -on average- you watered. Then water on the same frequency (once every 3 times/4 days/5 days/etc). Recheck if your temps change 10-15 degrees and stay there.


This post was edited by luis_pr on Sun, Mar 23, 14 at 18:07

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 2:55PM
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Given your description of the leaves, and the fact that you are in zone 6, my best guess is that the leaves froze. The other possibility is that the plant dried out too much while covered? Do you water it occasionally while it's under wraps?

I'd be extremely surprised if this tough old plant is dead, though- it's almost certainly experienced winters as bad before. I would keep watering regularly (once or twice a week until you see signs of life such as green leaf nodes), and be patient- camellias do everything pretty slowly, but steadily.

Once y'all have warmed up- and thawed out- a bit, you should see some new leaves. When you see some growth, you should be able to tell which branches have some dead wood, and you can prune the dead stuff away.

Synthetic fertilizer after a plant has been stressed isn't a great idea, but the Hollytone is pretty slow-release, so I doubt that it will be a problem.

Obviously, nobody at this forum is likely to think you're silly for being attached to a lovely old camellia. Do you happen to know what variety it is? I'm guessing it's a fall-bloomer in your neck of the woods, and is done blooming when you wrap it up?

Do you have any photos of the blooms and/or leaf damage?
I wouldn't assume you have leaf gall without seeing photos, but if you do, it's not a crisis- the plant will survive.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 1:33PM
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It usually blooms in the Spring....I want to say May. Right now it's not doing anything other than looking sickly. :(

I took a closer look at the branches this morning and it looks like there might be some leaf buds on some of them. The side of the bush that's closer to the house actually looks better than the side that faces the street...maybe being near the house protected it a little more and regulated the temp a bit??

As far as watering it while it was covered, basically from when we covered it until about 3 weeks ago we had snow on the ground and the ground was frozen. For most of the winter it had about 2 feet of snow around it. A few warmer days (like maybe 35-40 degrees) that we had interspersed may have melted the snow pack a little then that may be how it got watered otherwise it was pretty much surrounded with snow.

I'm wondering if being in the corner of the fence and retaining wall protected it or made a frost pocket which could have made it colder? They were predicting snow for tomorrow and I debated covering it again, but then the forecast changed and the snow is going on a different course and not really hitting us here but it's supposed to be cold and windy for a couple of days and then getting up into the 50's.

I'll try and take some pictures and get them on was too dark when I got home from work today. I'm not great at posting pictures online though...not too techie! :)

Thanks for your help!

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 8:18PM
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I think your plant will be alright if you saw new leaf buds. Cold can damage the leaves and flowers, and I'm thinking you probably won't see many- if any- blooms this year, but the plant itself will probably be fine. An established camellia can withstand a lot of stress, but it will take a little time to recover.

Don't worry about posting photos if it's a chore. Instead, try googling "camellia leaf gall" to look at some photographs online and see if that may be the problem. If you think that's likely, follow the recommended protocol (Luis gives some valuable info above).

You may also be able to find photos of cold-damaged camellias for comparison with your plant.

I forgot to ask if your plant has some protection from the wind other than being in a corner? A cold wind can damage plants worse than just plain old cold temps. If you're expecting cold and windy, some sort of protection might be a good idea especially since your camellia is apparently already trying to replace the dead leaves with some new ones.

Good luck- spring is here, and spring weather can't be too far behind, right?

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 10:15PM
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She might be perking up a bit. On the side where there are more brown, dead-looknng leaves, I did notice a few new-looking green ones interspresed, so I'm hopeful about that.

The next few days are supposed to be warmer in the 50s with some rain, so that might perk her up too.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 7:57PM
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Even camellias that didn't get zapped by cold will be showing some older yellow or brown leaves that will soon be replaced by new green ones. So at least some of that may just be the normal cycle of leaf replacement.

If she's survived in zone 6 for all these years, she's pretty darned tough. Most camellias are, and can handle neglect, harsh weather and even being chopped down.

Surviving and flourishing are different things, so she'll make it through your winters, but may not always be able to put on a spring show for you. That's true down here, also- a badly-timed or prolonged cold snap can finish off the blooming season for some tender camellias before it even begins. I wouldn't necessarily expect your camellia to bloom this year, but May is still a ways off, so I wouldn't be astonished if you did get some flowers.

Which brings me to another question- what do her flowers look like? Someone here might be able to hazard a few suggestions re her ID since we know your plant is cold-hardy and at least 30-40 years old...

I'm attaching a link to an article about growing camellias in colder zones from the NYT. I hadn't seen it until I just went looking to see if 'Berenice Boddy' is a spring bloomer (she is).

Here is a link that might be useful: NYT article on cold-hardy camellias

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 9:15PM
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I just googled Berenice Boddy and my flower looks similar to that although it has more petals so the flowers looks a little "fluffier" or more ruffled if you know what I mean? It is a deep pink, almost magenta color with a small yellow center. Not variegated color...solid magenta. And the leaves are solid shiny deep green when they are healthy.

Having done some research, which consisted of looking at lots of pictures online, I think it's from the Japonica family. The man who owned our home prior to us was a wonderful gardener. We have some beautiful plantings which my husband and I have done a pretty good job of keeping alive for 20 years. Even this camellia, up until about 3-4 years ago, weathered winters pretty well and would burst out in beautiful blooms every spring.Unfortunately the previous owner passed away, so I can't contact him for any kind of advice as to how he cared for the camellia, or to find out what type it is.

Today there are still a lot of brown curled leaves on it...basically leaves that make it look as if it is dying. There are also some leaves that almost look like they are less they're greening up a little. Or it could be wishful thinking on my part. ;)

There are some flower buds, although I don't know that they are going to open, but they are there. I'm not concerned about it flowering....I'd just like it to survive.

There are also some leaf buds. Some of them look OK and some of them look a little sickly. Unfortunately after I uncovered it, we had a couple of more days where we had cold and sleet so I'm sure that didn't help. The problem is that it's a pretty big bush so covering and uncovering it is no small accomplishment and is a 2 person job!

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 12:46PM
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If there are leaf buds, that is a good thing. And as long as the root system is doing fine, that is good. With those two, you stand a good chance of getting new growth. Cold and sleet should not be a problem for camellias unless we are talking about temperatures below 10 degrees F or so.

If you were covering the camellia due to "cold" temps, you only would need to do that temporarily under those conditions and then you can remove it. For now, provide it soil moisture as evenly as possible. No periods of dry soil, followed by moist soil and back to dry. Keep it well mulched with 3-4" of organic mulch to protect the roots from temp swings and conserve soil moisture. Do not fertilize until the shrub is not stressed. I suggest a soil test too if you have been there for 20 years and not done a soil test. Check the soil pH at the time you do the soil test or get a soil pH test kit at most local nurseries.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 3:15PM
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Well here it is nearing the end of May and it still looks pretty sickly. Mostly brown dead looking leaves, which are now beginning to fall off. Some green growth interspersed, but very little...maybe 10% of the bush. Some of the leaves that were green now appear to be turning brown.

There are some leaf buds. There are flower buds but they look pretty dried up so I don't think they're going to amount to anything, not that I was expecting them to.

I've been keeping her evenly watered and talking a lot to her, encouraging her to grow. ;)

Any other suggestions? Should I be fertilzing with something or just let her be to repair herself????

    Bookmark   May 18, 2014 at 6:32PM
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Watering when needed and mulching are probably the best you can do. Fertilizing is not recommended for plants that are stressed.

I have a camellia that has winter damage so the leaves are browning out too. I will wait a month or so to see if I see osome leaf out on the affected branches. If I do not see "progress" before the end of June, I will prune the branches in 1" increments and stop when I see green or when I "connect" to another branch that is leafed out.

Feel free to use weak fertilizers like coffee grounds, liquid seaweed or liquid fish as those have minute amounts of nitrogen (compared to reg fertilizers) and lots of micronutrients.

    Bookmark   May 18, 2014 at 10:50PM
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Somehow I missed your April response, but if your camellia is magenta, it's probably not 'BB'. I wonder if it might be 'Mrs Charles Cobb'- she's a late-blooming japonica who is often magenta and ruffly with a bit of yellow stamens showing... I think she is considered to be fairly cold-hardy.

I agree that a japonica is a more likely suspect than a sasanqua, given its age and northerly location.

One thing I would mention is that some camellias put out new leaves that are bronze-colored and the leaves turn green after a few weeks. It sounds like yours may have done that?

As for camellia care, I think Luis' advice is sound, and I can't think of anything to add, so I won't.

I hope things look a lot better in a few weeks as the weather continues to warm up.

    Bookmark   May 21, 2014 at 8:24PM
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So now my camellia is about 60-70% leafed with nice green shiny leaves on both the branches and also more interiorly. I think that not having leaves on it may have allowed the sun to get more inside the bush and stimulate some new leaf growth there. Yay!!!!!!!!!!!

However there are some branches that are completely without leaves, leaf buds or any sign of life whatsoever. To me, they look dead. Should I be pruning those branches off now, or should I still leave everything as is until next year?

    Bookmark   August 2, 2014 at 8:02AM
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Good news!

It is hard to know what those branches can be up to. I usually like to wait a year in case they will come back and sprout leaves next season but, you could also lightly scratch the branches and see if they appear green and if they feel somewhat flexible/bendable (dead and dried out ones do not).

    Bookmark   August 2, 2014 at 2:42PM
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I'm glad to hear that your camellia is looking more like her old self. That Polar Vortex did a number on a lot of plants, but those old camellias have seen worse.

I figured she would be alright once I read that you were talking to her encouragingly. :>)

BTW, did you have a look for photos online of 'Mrs Charles Cobb'? Linking to photo below.

Here's to a milder winter next year,

Here is a link that might be useful: photo of 'Mrs Charles Cobb' at Almost Eden web site

    Bookmark   August 23, 2014 at 10:23PM
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So now that winter is coming again, when do you guys advise that I cover her? We've had a couple of cold days, but it's supposed to warm up again later this week.

She leafed back up I would say 85% throughout the spring and summer. No flowering.

Thanks for all the advice!

    Bookmark   November 19, 2014 at 6:52PM
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So I covered her about mid-December. Winter was pretty mild here up until about 3 weeks ago when we got hit with snow after snow and now we are dipping into the negative numbers for cold for a few days, with another possible big snowfall Saturday.

Is there anything else I should be doing. other than hoping that she recovered enough from last winter to make it through this winter? I'm worried that she hadn't bounced back enough and another rough winter might do her in.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2015 at 5:15PM
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Probably nothing now. Blocking the cold drying winds from the north would be useful but not a project to start at this time of the year. The snow sounds like great news as it acts as a natural shield for many plants. Just keep an eye in case there is too much of a good thing ('too much' snow that could bend or break stems or cause other issues). In Spring, prune any stems that dried out.

    Bookmark   February 13, 2015 at 1:05AM
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Re-reading your initial post, I see that the camellia is probably 30-40 years old, and you've had it for 20 years since you bought the house. But it sounds like you've only been covering it for two years? Or did you use a different sort of cover prior to that?

I wouldn't worry about the camellia's ability to recover from a cold winter- it's old enough that I think it's survived worse, though it may not always bounce back quickly. I do wonder if keeping the cover on for several months at a time is necessary/useful/counter-productive, but I have no experience of growing camellias in a cold climate, and can only advise you to be observant about how different conditions affect your plant's health, and her ability to bloom well.

And ditto to what Luis said above...


    Bookmark   February 13, 2015 at 9:25AM
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