and many gardens suffering damage to a lot of plants, especially evergreens like camellias and especially in the midlands and north of the UK. So often the story was that “my plants looked OK until March/April but the flower buds failed to open, the leaves turned brown, & then they all fell off”.
This was the sad story from many gardeners who grew camellias and other plants in containers. Those with mature plants in the ground generally fared better.
Camellias in containers have captive and restricted roots, unable to grow outwards and downwards to avoid the frost. Freezing soil water and frozen roots mean death. The smaller the plant exposed to these conditions the greater the risk, but even large plants got caught last winter so severe and prolonged was the icy weather.
Its frozen roots that produce the worst problems, not the foliage. Roots frozen for more than about 48 hours are killed. The longer this sort of weather lasts the deeper the frost penetrates and the more roots get damaged or die.
It’s not until spring begins to spring that the damage done by frost much earlier in winter takes its toll. Camellias, like most evergreens, are more or less dormant over winter and roots are not required for much action.
When days lengthen and flower buds start to swell, roots are needed to take water up into the branches. No roots, no water, no life.
Our arctic weather hit us suddenly in November/December, catching many out before they had taken measures to protect their plants.
Those that brought their plants into a frost free greenhouse, slightly heated conservatory or even a garage or shed generally fared better. Those that wrapped their pots and tubs with several layers of bubble wrap or with bin-sacks filled with leaves/straw, or any other material that trapped air, also kept most or all of their plants alive, especially if they also brought their plants under cover. A few went too far and coddled their plants in the dry heat of a centrally heated house--- which was just too much and their plants curled up their toes and died of heat exhaustion !
Cool and frost-free accommodation is best for protecting camellias in freezing weather along with insulation around pots, leaving a water permeable cover over the pot for adding water as required during mild spells.
Our recommendation is to accept that plants in containers that have lost all leaves & have brown buds showing no sign of life should be given a week or so to “see what happens” and then to accept the inevitable and chuck them out and replace.
Camellias, even established plants growing in the garden, may have lost all their flower buds this year and also have browned leaves scorched by frost. Some or many of the leaves may have fallen. However, if the root systems were well protected and are still alive all should be well.
Look at the “growth” buds. The outer, protective, bud scales may be browned but, if they have done their job, the inner tissues will be OK and shoots will develop.
Where parts of a bush are showing severe damage or death, cut branches back to healthy buds or shoots. This can be done at any time.
For the future :-
In colder areas plant well established camellias with good root systems if possible. Small plants, like small children, need more TLC.
Choose varieties known to be successful both for survival and the ability to flower freely in your area. (Ask around locally and get guidance from a specialist nursery). Many modern japonica varieties do well almost anywhere, as do the majority of williamsii hybrids. Some of the older japonicas are great survivors but fail to flower freely in northern areas.
Be prepared to insulate pots and tubs and/bring into a greenhouse, garage or shed next winter, as soon as freezing weather is forecast. The ground around camellias in the garden can be mulched with bark chippings or leaves.
See our extra article on protecting for winter
To protect opening flower buds from frost damage, a wrapping of horticultural fleece should reduce or prevent damage.
For now, enjoy the last of this spring’s blooms and that flush of fresh growth that should bear next seasons blooms in due course.
Give established plants a top-dressing of slow release fertiliser granules, following the instructions on the packet for the dosage, and cover with soil or compost to keep the pellets moist and able to gently feed your plants for the active growing season ahead.
Keep the roots moist but not water-logged.
This article written by Jennifer Trehane
author of Camellias - The Gardeners Encylopedia
Published by Timber Press
Jennifer also writes articles for magazines and lectures extensively around the world on Camellias and Blueberries
Use our contact page if you are an editor or wish to contact Jennifer.