Most old camellias have either been ignored, abused or received only token attention for their mid-winter bloom.
"Sixty percent of homeowners don't know how to handle old camellias" said Julius Nuccio co-owner and founder of Nuccios' 55-year-old camellia and azalea nursery in Altadena.
Pruning an old camellia is not easily done. My own camellias made a thicket alongside the house and blocked our view from inside. Where to begin cutting them back?
For advice, I turned to Nuccio, to staff horticulturalist Ann Richardson of the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino, where the camellias have received decades of care, and to Richard Frausto of Pasadena, the owner of a gardening business and a pruning expert.
Their tips apply mostly to the vigorous japonicas and sasanqua camellias. Modifications are noted for the lanky-stemmed, less resilient reticulatas, which seem to reject heavy pruning.
Clean, sharp hand clippers and loppers should be used for small branches, and a curved pruning saw reserved for larger limbs.
"Prune as it pleases you," Nuccio advised. "If you want more flowers in your landscape prune right after blooming when the bush is in dormancy and before the new growth begins."
"If cut flowers are more important to you, prune as you harvest," Nuccio said.
The latest date for pruning is generally April 15 but it's contingent on early-, mid- and late-blooming varieties and may vary with area and weather.
But camellias can be pruned all year, Nuccio said.
To illustrate the remarkable recovery power of japonicas and sasanquas, he pointed to hundreds of 3-year-old specimens in one-gallon cans at his nursery. Each had been pruned a year ago and had since grown almost three feet.
Here's the way to tackle the pruning of an old camellia:
1--Consider your personal taste, the form of the existing shrub and the function the camellia is to perform. Ask yourself, "What do I want it to do?"
2--Examine the leader branch or branches. These are the strong, upright branches near the top of the plant. If a tree-shaped shrub is the goal, eliminate all but one leader on top and a single trunk at the base.
For a lower, shrub-shaped bush, remove all the vertical leaders and keep the most significant of the multiple trunks.
3--Proceed as you would in general pruning, removing all the dead wood, crossing branches, twiggy growth and any growth below a graft union.
Make cuts close to the connecting branch and seal the large cuts with a tree sealing compound. A squeeze bottle of water-based white glue is also a handy sealant for the smaller cuts.
4--Stand back again and study the exposed structure, keeping in mind that the new growth from last year's wood will bear next season's flowers.
5--Saw off remaining old stubs flush to the main branch. If the growth encroaches on a area where there is foot or vehicle traffic, cut off any branches facing that direction flush to the trunk.
6--Again observe your progress from a distance. Select and eliminate branches that upset the balance of the bush; branches on either side of the center should balance each other.
7--Remember that each pointed growth tip is a promise of another branch. Clip remaining branches so that the tips point in the direction you want the branch to go.
"The reluctant reticulatas, however," Nuccio pointed out, "require more sensitive handling." To prevent dieback on the lanky long branches, he made a cut above a growth bud of this year's wood, just above the joint of last year's wood.
If an open, lacy framework is preferred to bushiness, choose one of the multiple stems that may extend from a single branch. View it first from a distance to judge which one has the best potential, then remove the other. Do this on all of the major branches until as much as half of the foliage is removed.
In all cases, keep stepping back to study the structure of the plant, and you will likely make two observations.
One is the discovery of the bark's previously hidden beauty resembling the patina, grain and gray color of weathered teak.
The second is the bareness of the now visible interior branches in contrast to the former bank of foliage. However, exposure to light rapidly stimulates new growth on this previously shaded wood.
Another, more drastic pruning method is called "dehorning," and is not favored by Frausto since the two- to three-year process is unattractive and not always successful. It is reserved as a means of converting tall, top-heavy camellias into shrubs.
Side branches are removed along the entire trunk and a tuft of growth is left on top to regenerate new lower growth. During the second or third year, when new growth has developed on about the lower one-third of the trunk, the top is severed, leaving the regenerated shrub at the base.
If maintaining an open structure is the goal, watch during the growing season for new sprouts that appear on the main trunk as well as main branches. It is easier to rub them off as small green nubs than to go after them later with clippers.
The same precaution of early removal is also true for the tall "waterspouts"--vertical shoots on horizontal limbs--which sometimes are nature's reaction to the trauma of pruning or limb damage.
Camellias have some unusual dictates, and the best pruning techniques are to no advantage if they are ignored. A shallow root system lays fine white filaments of vital feeder roots close to the surface of the soil and requires constant moisture and aeration.
The roots are damaged easily by too thick a mulch, accumulated silt from downhill irrigation, sinking of the bush or too-deep planting. The result will be little or no bloom, sickly plants from fungus disease or dieback. Reticulatas are particularly sensitive to root trauma.
Frausto recommends gently scraping off the excess surface covering with a trowel. If replanting is required, ball up the entire root system while the camellia is in full bloom and move it to a better location or position.