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Pruning Camellias

Camellias are so long-lived and vigorous that if left unattended for a few years, the idea of pruning one can be intimidating at first.  Should you prune your camellia, and if so, how, where, and when? 

Some of the factors that help answer those questions are - How large and fast does that variety want to grow? Are you growing it as a hedge, a privacy screen, or even an espalier? Do you want to trim or harvest your camelia sinensis for tea leaves?

The good news is, pruning is not mandatory for camellias, unless it’s needed to bring some air into the center of the shrub, or if it’s overgrown it’s space in your yard. Read on to learn how to prune these evergreen shrubs.

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When to Prune Camellia

Timing the pruning of your camellia is crucial if you are looking forward to enjoying blossoms. 

However, it’s a little tricky because different types bloom in fall, winter, or spring. A general rule of thumb is to prune right after blooming. So, for varieties like Camellia sasanqua and C. sinensis, which typically bloom in fall or winter, the best times are the latest winter or early spring –or right after flowering if the weather delays the flowers.

The same is true for Camellia japonica, which usually bloom in spring. Tea harvesting of C. sinensis – light pruning on the new growth can be done any time during the growing season.

Or maybe you have a young hybrid and don’t know when it blooms? It’s fine to skip a year to see when it blooms first. 

This strategy gives the plant time to recover and set next year’s buds. If you wait too long after flowering, you risk losing next year’s display.

How to Prune Camellia

Step 1 – Create Space For Air & Light 

Using clean, sharp pruners or loppers, remove dead leaves and stems as well as crossing branches on the interior yearly. 

Step 2 – Remove Unnecessary Growth

Cut down broken branches and suckers to the ground to send energy to stronger branches. 

Step 3 – Prune For Necessity 

Look out for branches against a building, blocking a view or path, and remove to join with another branch. Keep your total pruning to no more than 1/3 of the plant’s growth – if there are three stalks, only prune one that needs it this year.  Make a clean cut, leaving a slight ridge where the two branches meet.

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How to Prune Camellia for Winter/Spring/Fall/Summer

Camellias only want to be pruned once a year, at the most. The main reason to do it annually is to thin out congested branches and dead leaves in the center to stave off disease. The ideal time to prune your camellia, at any age, is directly after it flowers. 

Timing of bloom varies by species and hybrid variety, so get to know when your plant flowers before your first pruning. If you wait several weeks after blooming, you may cut off the flowers for next year. However, if your plant is severely overgrown, or approaching power lines, you may decide it’s better to forgo the flowers for a year. To keep it vigorous, you’ll want to only prune 1/3 of the total plant in any year. 

Special Cases:

Camellias can be grown as hedges, but it’s recommended to use freshly-sharpened shears rather than power equipment which can cause more jagged cuts. Follow the same timing guidelines as above if blooms are desired.

If you inherited a very old, overgrown camellia, take heart! Don’t be afraid to prune – camellias respond well to pruning and you’ll be helping it redirect its resources more efficiently. Just keep to the 1/3 rule, use sharp tools, and your plant will thank you with refreshed growth and flowering.

Camellia Pruning Tips

  • Use freshly sharpened hand pruners, not power tools to avoid disease.
  • Prune immediately after blooming to preserve next year’s flowers.
  • Remove dead, broken, suckering, or crossing growth on the inside to the ground.
  • If needed, cut healthy branches where they meet another branch and leave a flat ridge at the join.
  • Only cut up to 1/3 of the total plant in any year’s pruning.