Q.: A friend of mine has a beautiful camellia with variegated blooms. I’d love to have one of the same, but she doesn’t know its name, and we can’t find it in garden catalogs or in retail garden centers. Can I propagate it by rooting a cutting or planting seeds from the parent plant? If so, can you tell me how and when to try?
A.: Planting Camellia seeds is by far the longest process to start your plant but not all camellias root readily from cuttings either. With good facilities, bottom heat, intermittent mist, and rooting hormones almost any camellia cutting can be rooted successfully.
Cuttings of new growth are the easiest to root. They should be taken soon after the tender growth matures and hardens (between May and August). The cut should preferably be made around the fifth node (the node is the tiny bud-like growth at the base of the leaf junction with the stem). Cuttings of this length are long enough to remove the lower leaves, leaving eyes from which roots will develop in addition to those at the cut end. A tapering cut should be made at the base of the cutting. This allows more surface for roots to develop. To reduce dehydration, the leaves left on the cutting may be trimmed back one-half.
A media of one-half sand and one-half peat has been proven successful in aiding the formation of roots. Also used are vermiculite and perlite. The medium should drain well but not dry out too quickly. Any box, pot, container or bed at least 4 to 6 inches deep that provides good drainage is suitable for the medium. Although not necessary, a rooting hormone may speed up rooting if applied to cuttings before inserting into the medium.
Cuttings should be placed in rooting media about 2 inches apart and 2 to 3 inches deep. A covering of glass or plastic over the pot will help to retain moisture. Intermittent mist is used by nurserymen to prevent drying out. Cuttings should be kept moist, but not wet at all times. When cuttings are well rooted, usually mid-to-late winter, transfer them to pots or plant in a protected bed. A small number of cuttings may be rooted in a pot of sand covered with a milk jug or soft drink bottle with bottom removed.
The fastest way to propagate a Camellia is by air layering. Air layering is a good method of reproducing good-sized plants in one year. It may be done at any time of the year, but the best time is in the spring when the plants are actively growing. At this time, the bark is slipping and easily removed. Air layering is based upon the centuries-old propagating process developed by the Chinese of layering (rooting) plants by placing sections of branches that are still attached to the plant in the ground and covering them with earth, having first removed or roughed the bark on the underside.
Air layering is a simple process similar to layering that can be completed in one season. The rooting medium is in the air rather than in the ground.
• On a healthy limb completely remove a ring of bark 1 1/2 to 2 times the diameter of the branch to be air layered. This should be 12 to 24 inches from the tip of the limb. Two parallel cuts may be made with sharp clippers or a knife and the strip lifted off. The branch may be producing new growth, however, the girdled wood must be hardened off.
• Eliminate all traces of the cambium layer (green tissue just inside the bark) by scraping with a knife. If the bark is slipping, scraping will not be necessary as the cambium layer will be removed with the bark. Dust the exposed surface with a rooting hormone powder recommended for hardwood cuttings or brush on with a paintbrush if it is a liquid solution.
• Cover the ringed area with a handful of presoaked sphagnum moss from which the excess water has been squeezed. Wrap this tightly with medium weight plastic wrap (from the kitchen) and secure with twist ties above and below the ball of moss. (These ties may not be necessary.) Cover this ball with a square of aluminum foil, dull side out to discourage birds from pecking.
• Air layers started in the spring have usually formed roots by fall or late summer. Feeder roots will be visible through the plastic.
• When the roots are visible through the moss, cut the limb from the mother plant at the bottom edge of the moss with sharp clippers. Remove the plastic. Soak in a bucket of water until planting.
• Do not try to remove the moss as it may damage the tender roots. Best results will usually be obtained by planting first in a container although it can go directly into the ground. Air layers will often flower the first year although excessive buds should be removed so as not to strain the plant.
The American Camellia Society Website is the basis of this article. It is packed with information on Camellia varieties and care.