camellia not doing well...

foodfiend_gardener(6a)June 18, 2014

Last November we planted 3 "Northern Exposure" camellias (camellia sasanqua). It was a nasty winter, but they seemed to come through it well enough (after I sprayed them with LIquid Fence to stop the deer munching), and I fertilized with Holly Tone in early April.

One shrub, in the same area as the other two, does not look like it is doing well. The lower branches are bare, and there are leaves dying on a few branches. It is well watered, and I don't see signs of insects, so does anyone have any suggestions what might be the problem? These plants are new to me, having recently moved here from further north (a year ago, I didn't even know what a camellia was! And now they are one of my favorites, but I do need a couple of spring-flowering ones...)

Thank you!

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vmr423(Zone 8b, SC)

I'm not familiar with 'Northern Exposure'- I'm guessing it's a cold-hardy camellia?

As for what could be wrong, I'm wondering about the pH of the soil. If it's too alkaline, camellias can have trouble accessing the nutrients they need, even if all those nutrients are present. It is quite possible for the pH to be fine where 2 plants are, but not where the 3rd one is. I'm wondering about that wall behind the plant- any possibility of limestone leaching that could be raising the pH of the nearby soil?

You can get a soil-ph test at your local hardware store or garden center.

Also, does the plant look like it may have been planted deeper than the others? Camellias have shallow root systems, and if they're planted too deep, those roots don't get the air that they need.

Something else to think about is how close that camellia is to the wall. Sasanquas will eventually get quite large, and I wonder if you- or later residents of that house- may someday wish you'd planted your sasanqua further away from that wall. It could be that the perspective is skewed by the camera angle, and there's actually plenty of room, but it does look like there's a potential for your camellia to run out of room once it gets to be a large bush/small tree. I've seen LOTS of sasanquas that have to get unattractive annual haircuts because they were planted too close to a house, wall, etc.

Good luck,

    Bookmark   June 19, 2014 at 12:01PM
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everything that virginia mentioned, esp. the planting depth, could be a problem. perhaps that plant settled deeper than the others and the roots are covered with too much soil instead of mulch.
i would not site one closer than 3'-4' from a building to the center of the plant.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2014 at 2:30PM
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Thanks so much for the replies. Here's some additional information:

The camellias all have an eastern exposure. There is a irrigation line running through that planting bed, so they are watered regularly.

The camellia center is 3' from the stone foundation. Do you think that it is too close (one other is the same distance, the third is about 4' from the foundation). The stone is actually a veneer on the concrete foundation of the garage. But at the front of the camellia (just beyond view of the camera) is a new poured concrete sidewalk. Could the foundation and the sidewalk be raising the pH? I will test the soil pH.

If you look at the base of the plant, there is some sort of mossy/ twiggy stuff; when I scraped it, it appears to be roots that have dried (and were easily removed). I noticed this on the two others, but much less in quantity. Could this be some sort of sign of a problem?

I didn't plant the camellias (or any of the other plants), but they looked to be a good depth. It was very busy, and there was just too much to think about. I know that it shouldn't be an excuse but this is a new zone for us, and our builder insisted on planting all of these at once.

Should I try to replant the camellia, using more potting mix mixed in the soil and at a shallower depth? Any additional advice would be greatly appreciated. Poor thing has really begun to look badly over the past few days (temps over 90 degrees, we were all not doing well...)

Thanks again!

ps- I'm adding another photo, a closeup of the worst part...

    Bookmark   June 19, 2014 at 9:10PM
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luis_pr(7b/8a Hurst, TX)

The cement can make the soil alkaline but 3-4' away from the cement is ok. Old house foundations will not affect the soil as much as new foundations. A cheap soil pH test kit wil not be terribly accurate but is close enough to tell if the soil needs amending. However, I do not see signs of iron chlorsis on the other leaves so check it anyways, especially if your soil is alkaline and needs amending now and then. Hmmm, that reminds me that I need to amend this weekend!!!

That part of the bush may have had a winter injury (prune the affected area) but I would also look it all over for signs of camellia canker and dieback; see more info here:,9,300&pageid=1260

I also had this year one Debutante Camellia with damage to one branch.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2014 at 3:40AM
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vmr423(Zone 8b, SC)

I do agree with Luis that you probably have some cold damage that should be pruned. It's always a good idea to remove dead wood from plants once the growing season starts and it is clear which wood is dead and not simply still dormant...

Regardless of what kind of shape you have in mind for your sasanqua when it eventually matures, you'll want to limit the number of main trunks (1-3 trunks is enough): a crowded interior invites pests, fungal disease, etc.

As for moving the sasanqua from the wall, I guess it depends on what your eventual goal for the sasanqua is. If you let it grow to full size, 'Northern exposure' can get to be a 10' x 10' small tree, but if your intention is to keep pruning to a smaller shape, that 3-foot expanse will be enough.

If you like the idea of letting it get to a larger size and have some room to move it over a bit, you could do that when temps are cooler, and the plant isn't getting stressed by heat or cold. Camellias are pretty tough, but there's no point in stressing them unnecessarily...

Here is a link that might be useful: Monrovia info on 'Northern Exposure'

    Bookmark   June 20, 2014 at 11:43AM
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Thank you both so much! I just checked the shrub and it looks as though more leaves are wilting...

The soil is sandy/ clay and there is a layer of topsoil over it. I meant to send samples to a soil-testing facility earlier this spring but became overwhelmed with moving and getting our old house ready to sell. Should I just give it more Holly Tone to acidify the soil (it had been almost 3 months since the last application and with the sandy soil the benefits may have washed through already).

I'll prune the dead branches. I wanted to wait until absolutely certain that they were dead, though. I think that I over-waited...

We do plan on pruning these to be no more than 5' tall, so I'll keep the main trunk to one or two.

Now, one more question. When I looked up Luis's link, I found this:,9,300&pageid=1261

Should I be considering root rot?

And thanks vmr for the Monrovia link, it was also very helpful.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2014 at 12:37PM
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luis_pr(7b/8a Hurst, TX)

Sandy soil requires about 50% more water than regular soil so, instead of giving the shrub 1 gallon of water per watering, you would need 1.5 gallons. Water when the soil feels almost dry or dry if you insert a finger into the soil to a depth of 4".

A soil pH check may be useful but not necessary since the leaves do not show signs of iron chlorosis. Holly Tone is a fertilizer so I would not use it on a stressed plant. Something like greensand, garden sulphur or iron chelated liquid compounds would be better when the leaves show signs of iron chlorosis.

I did not consider root rot because root rot tends to affect the whole plant and you said on the side of the plant facing east was affected. Root rot also produces signs of leaves wilting and remaining wilted 24/7. Root rot would also require that the soil remain wet for long periods of time; you can inspect the soil to see if it is dry, moist or wet. If wet, try to determine why and take appropriate corrective action.

A plant with root rot may not last since there is no cure but you could move it to a container -where soil moisture is more controllable- and prune the foul smelling or bad looking roots and hope it makes it.

If you see the problem spreading, look for signs of leaves wilting to confirm root rot. Otherwise, if you see not root rot, check for signs of camellia dieback per the ACS Link..


    Bookmark   June 20, 2014 at 8:53PM
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I really appreciate your advice, luis. Thank you so much! I pruned the old wood and dying branches, and gave it a very weak application of MirAcid because I needed to do something... (:rolleyes:), and it looks good. Fingers crossed!

    Bookmark   June 21, 2014 at 9:22PM
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vmr423(Zone 8b, SC)

I will respectfully disagree with Luis on the Hollytone- it's a slow-release organic plant food, not an all-at-once blast of chemical fertilizer, so I don't think it would be inappropriate for a stressed plant.

Besides, I didn't see much to worry about on your plant aside from the dead wod that's probably- as Luis says- cold damaged wood.

Testing soil is a good idea eventually, but if you have sandy clay, the question is which is predominant, and how quickly water drains away from the plant- if it's sandier, you must water more frequently; if it's clay-ier, then less frequently. You can do a test to see what you've got using a straight-sided jar- see the link below. But you can also feel the dirt around your plants after you water them, to tell how long it takes to dry.

Something I didn't see mentioned is mulch. A pine straw or pine bark or other acidic mulch will add organic matter as it breaks down and it will keep the soil from drying out too quickly. Also, it provides some insulation for the plants, keeping them warmer in winter & cooler in summer. Just don't get the mulch compacted around the base of the plant- camellias have shallow roots that need accesss to air.

And I will just mention since you are probably planting (or have recently planted) a number of other plants, that many gardeners like to use a mycorrhizal product to help new plants establish their root systems more quickly...

Good luck,

Here is a link that might be useful: Soil texture testing

    Bookmark   June 22, 2014 at 10:31AM
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Might be too much sun. Early morning sun is bad for northern grown camellias during the winter. Source: Growing Camellias in Cold Climates by Dr. William Ackerman.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2014 at 8:17PM
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Thanks so much for the responses. I hate to think that the problem is caused by early-morning sun since all three are in that location and I really don't want to move them...

and, Virginia, I do have mulch around them (pine bark) and will add more as soon as I can get it here. All of the flower beds need a new layer, anyway.

Well, fingers are crossed since we leave tomorrow for 2 weeks and the "not well" camellia looked very well today. :) I don't have time to do the soil texture test until we return, but I definitely will then. If nothing else, it will help me with my other plantings, too.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2014 at 8:34PM
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Question-- would this problem be caused by too much water? We just noticed that the downspout behind the camellia is blocked (out in the yard where it drains) and water pools on that corner of the house during heavy rains (of which we have had many recently). Our builder is coming over to take care of the issue next week.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 10:21PM
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luis_pr(7b/8a Hurst, TX)

Maybe. Too much water can cause root rot if the soil does not drain quickly. If the soil drains quickly but clogs frequently, it can also end causing root rot.

You are probably best equipped to answer that by checking the condition of the soil. It is ok for the soil to feel moist -but not wet- if you insert a finger to a depth of 4". If you also notice that the surrounding mulch stays looking "wet" often and for a long time, that would not be good.

This post was edited by luis_pr on Sun, Jul 13, 14 at 22:44

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 10:43PM
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Thanks, Luis. We are to get a lot of rain tomorrow so I will check out if the downspout & drain are still clogged (my husband tried to clean it out yesterday). I'm hoping that is what is the cause of the branches dying because everything else suggested isn't working. Another branch has brown leaves and needs to be removed (but there's nice, green new growth, too!). Grrrr. If the wet area is the problem, I'm just going to move the plant even if the issue is resolved.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2014 at 9:19PM
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