Camellia Propagation

By far, most camellias are propagated with cuttings although some are multiplied with seeds and grafting. Seedling camellias vary widely, of course, and can take a decade or more to flower so they are only a method for the very patient gardener. If you have ever watched a professional camellia grafter at work, as I have, you know how truly skilled one must be to use that method.

The old man sat at one end of a bench that stretched the length of a football field. Almost pot to pot, his creations covered the expanse – a sea of quart sized pots with new grafts inside and covered with glass jelly jars. Surely so many must have taken years to produce, yet all were about the same size and it turned out he’d only been in that greenhouse for 3 months! He neatly snipped off the top of the rootstock plant and made a matching slice in the scion wood from the desired camellia variety. With grafting wax in one hand, he joined them together, added the cloche and moved on to the next. He let us try and only chuckled as we struggled to get the grafts to hold together. I was humbled to sit at the feet of a true master!

Since most popular camellias can grow well on their own roots, most of us root cuttings when we want a new plant. Besides being the simplest way to get a new plant, this method insures that the offspring will be identical and so grow and bloom in the same way as its parent. We all know someone who makes propagation look easy. That person can cut off a camellia stem at any time of the year, stick it into the ground next to the plant it came from, and dig up a rooted plant in six months. Others can leave a cut flower in a cup of water and roots will form before you know it. Trust me, these anecdotal experiences are true but sadly rare and I suggest a more conventional approach with much better odds of success.

Take cuttings of camellia when the wood is semi-hard. New growth is soft and very green, hardwood will snap easily when you try to bend it. In between is the semi-hard or summer wood, as it is also called. Take a cutting about 6 inches long, or one that has 5 sets of leaves. Some sources say to make the cut right below an emerging leaf or node and others say to cut between 2 nodes. You may also be advised to slip off the bark at the base of the cut. While these steps evolved because they helped someone get roots to grow, I cannot find a side-by-side study to compare them. I start with a 6 inch long cutting when possible, but have rooted camellia cuttings as short as 4 inches with about as much care. The diameter of the stem does not matter in this process as much as its stage of growth, but ideally, the cutting will be bigger around than a toothpick and smaller in girth than a pencil. If it is not possible to stick the cuttings right away, store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

When it’s time to get growing, I take the leaves off of the lower half of the cutting, make sure the lower stem is cut on a slant, roll it in Hormex Rooting Powder #3 and stick it into a damp mix of peat moss and sand or perlite. If those ingredients are not available, lightweight potting mix will do, but it must be well-watered before use and requires close attention to watering. I like to root camellias and other woody plants in small plastic pots, usually recycled 4 inch containers that have been washed in hot, soapy water and rinsed with a 1:10 solution of bleach and water.

If you put those pots on a tray of gravel, it is a simple matter to keep the environment moist and humid without overwatering. Like the grafting gent, I know the value of increasing humidity around the cuttings and will put a tray of pots into a plastic cloche if they are to root indoors. Some gardeners put together rooting boxes just for woody plants and use only peat moss as a rooting medium. Because I live and garden where it is humid and warm most of the year, pots work better for me. I am better able to control moisture levels and can better allow for air circulation around each cutting. However you do it, remember that camellia cuttings need bright light, but cannot survive full sun any better than the shrubs themselves can.

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