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Camellias in urban landscapes

Andrea Corneo


1 spain public seats

  Camellias in public square in Pontevedra, Galicia


During the last ICS Congress (2014) we saw how camellias are an integral part of the urban landscape in Galicia. It is different in Italy where camellias were traditionally grown in private parks. Also, and more recently, they can be admired in small gardens, where camellia devotees grow them as rare botanical treasures. It is only in northern Italy, especially in the area of the alpine lakes, that they occasionally are seen in urban settings.


2 street scene Galicia

  Camellias in an urban setting in Galicia


In northern Spain the approach is different. Camellias are more popular anyway and are seen as a normal part of the urban landscape, which helps its reputation as an easy plant to cultivate. In Pontevedra, Vigo and Villagarcia de Arousa camellias are grown as trees rather than large shrubs, and the streets are lined with them. People are used to living with camellias all around and they like them. Any camellia show is well attended and the Spanish Camellia Society is well supported.

By contrast in Italy camellias are more or less absent except for the few areas where camellia floriculture is found. In the town of Verbania, for example, you will find many Camellia japonica around the lakes, on the traffic roundabouts and in the streets. Unfortunately many of the plants are in poor health, their yellow colouring a result of chlorosis or sunburn.


3 Chlorosis  Yellow chlorotic camellia leaves caused by contamination or sunburn


This is in contrast to the dark, thick foliage on the large specimens that overhang the fences of private gardens. Most people in Italy consider camellias to be delicate and difficult to grow.
An attempt has been made in Milan to introduce camellias into the urban landscape. In the newly-built quarter of Porta Nuova the central flowerbeds near Via della Liberazione have been planted with Camellia japonica and Nandina domestica, which seem to go well together. It is too early to judge the results but the flowerbeds are too small and are encircled by unattractive cement pavements that damage the plants.


4 small flower beds 1

  Plants crowded into inadequate flower beds in newly developed urban area


So why is there such a difference between Italy and Spain in this regard? Climate is a key issue. The climate of northern Spain has a big positive impact that helps camellias to thrive in the urban landscape. The winters are not too cold, and the summers, although warm, are never too dry; the humid oceanic weather patterns see to that. In Italy the two central summer months can be too dry and hot for camellias.
There is also a culture in Italian building projects that often considers so called ‘Green’ issues to be unimportant. So quite often flower beds in building projects are restricted in the amount of soil provided, and anyway they often get contaminated with builders’ rubbish, including concrete which quickly poisons camellias, turning the leaves yellow due to ferric chlorosis. Quite often these dying camellias put out full blooms, but this is what we call the swan song of the camellia.


5 small flower beds chlorosis  Chlorotic camellias in small beds

This situation is to be regretted because we know that camellias, if properly planted in public situations, would provide a great incentive for people to grow them privately. Although there are exceptions, in so many public places, the plants look unattractive, so their value falls and demand decreases.

So what can we do to solve this problem? Certainly there is a need to inform and educate garden designers and landscaping companies about the right conditions and protocols for planting camellias and other acidophil plants in urban landscapes, rather than the conventional cherry laurels and photinias.

What follows is a short summary. This needs to be elaborated into a full handbook for effective planting in both public and private situations.



First of all it is important to consider the composition of the soil. Camellias require an acid soil, ideally about pH 6.0, with a good crumb texture, a generous amount of organic matter, not too much clay, and low lime content.

If the colour of the soil is dark (almost black) it indicates that organic substances are present. If you are not sure about the presence of limestone you can pour some lemon juice onto it. It will bubble and foam in contact with calcareous soil.
If you are not convinced about the soil composition, add 30-40% blonde sphagnum peat. If the soil seems to be really unsuitable, it would be better to excavate a 1m diameter hollow, 0.7-0.8 m in depth, and fill it with acidophil soil enriched with 20% drainage material.

When preparing a bed it is necessary to remove unsuitable material and also to ensure that there is no possibility of stagnant water. To ensure a complete separation of limestone in the surrounding soil you can add a geotextile layer or basic propylene on the base and the sides of the hole. If you do this you will need to add more draining material to the bottom. Remember that the bigger the planting hole, the better the health of the camellia. At the bottom of the hole and mixed with the substrate it is good practice to add 250g of organic soil or guano. Both of these are slow release fertilisers. The addition of peat to the soil is also a good practice because it increases the organic substance and improves soil structure.

The plants are normally cultivated in pots and are quite often short. When you take the plant out of the pot you might find the roots, especially at the bottom, are too thick in which case cut the thickest parts and use your hands to ease the root ball slightly open., enabling the roots to grow outwards. Remember that if you remove some of the root you need to balance the amount of foliage by pruning, for example, at an axillary bud.

Once the hole and the root ball are settled, the camellia is ready to be planted and earthed up. Press the soil in around the plant, but not too hard, remember that the best settlement will be achieved by irrigation. A 1m diameter shallow moat around the plant is suggested. Then water plentifully at the beginning, flooding the depression, to soak the substratum and then earth up again. If necessary, add a stake to help support the roots and finally add a mulch.

The positive benefits of mulching are many. It protects the plant from intense cold and from sudden changes in temperature. It helps maintain the right level of soil humidity, conserves moisture, stops the growth of weeds, and helps improve the soil as the mulch breaks down. The mulch should be replaced every year. The depth of a good mulch layer depends on the size of the plant and also the material of the mulch. If using leaves 15-20 cm is necessary, bark or wood chippings need 6-8 cm, or if using natural stone such as volcanic lapillus, only 4-5 cm is required. Mulching is one of the most commonly recommended cultivation techniques for acidophilic and evergreen plants.

Irrigation is the final key. It is essential to avoiding water stress and it should be frequent and in small quantities. In the case of flower beds micro-irrigation systems are best, as they provide the moisture drop-by-drop. The best systems are automatic and regulated by a timer. Generally a 20 minute irrigation at night and a brief 10 minute cycle at midday is sufficient.


6 Pontevedra 2

  Mature camellias flourishing in an urban setting in Spain


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