Diseases of Camellias

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There are some plants with characteristics that help provide a source of structure to the landscape. Not something with fluff, but something to anchor the design with strength and durability. The camellia is one of those versatile plants that can be used throughout the landscape as a backdrop or brought to the forefront with their colorful flowers. They can be used as specimen plants, in borders, as foundation plantings and used as screenings. They have rich, dark foliage and blooms that bravely step forward in cooler months while other plants are tucking themselves in for a winter’s nap. But even an anchor can show signs of rust once in a while. As tough and reliable as they are, camellias can still have issues with some diseases. Many can be prevented or minimized by cultural practices. Here are the most common.

Camellia dieback and canker is a serious fungal disease that causes the leaves to suddenly turn yellow and wilt. Cankers (sunken areas) develop on the bark and stems, eventually girdle the stem and cause areas above the canker to wilt and die. These symptoms usually occur during hot, dry weather. Remove affected twigs below the cankered areas and disinfect pruning tools between cuts to prevent spread of the disease. Use of fungicides may help protect pruned areas and leaf scars from further infection.

Camellia flower blight affects only the flowers causing them to turn brown. Small irregular spots begin on the petals, then enlarge and cover almost the entire flower. The flower usually browns and drops from the plant within 48 hours. Suspect this disease if the brown area spreads rapidly from the outer edges to the center of the bloom. Good sanitation is important here. Pull and destroy infected flowers and remove all fallen debris from around the plant. This fungus can survive in the soil and its spores can be wind-borne to other camellias in the landscape.

Root rot causes leaf yellowing, poor growth and wilting of the entire plant. The infected root system turns brownish in color and death may be rapid or the plant may be in decline for several years. This fungal disease thrives in areas with poor drainage and once the plant becomes infected, it is difficult to control. Camellia japonica cultivars are more susceptible. Use amendments to improve soil drainage or plant in raised beds. If there has been an issue with root rot in the past, select varieties of Camellia sasanqua or cultivars of Camellia japonica grafted onto sasanqua rootstock.

Leaf gall is more common on Camellia sasanqua and is most evident during spring Petal blight on a camellia. growth in moist, humid conditions. Shoots and leaves become enlarged and fleshy and abnormal looking. The affected areas become nearly white and the galls rupture on the undersides of leaves which eventually turn brown. Remove galls before they have a chance to rupture and rake and remove any fallen debris.

Yellow camellia mottle virus is transmitted by root grafts from diseased stock. Irregular yellow, splotchy patterns appear on leaves and irregular white patches can appear on flowers. Choose healthy plants from a reputable garden center to make sure you are getting ones that are virus-free.

Algal leaf spot is a pathogen favored by wet weather. It causes circular or blotchy spots on leaves. Spots may vary and take on a velvety appearance in summer when reproducing spores. Premature yellowing of leaves may occur. Remove and destroy infected leaves and improve air circulation around the plant.

Most diseases of camellias can be prevented by choosing healthy plants, proper site selection and good growing conditions with protection from afternoon sun. Provide good drainage and conduct a soil sample from time to time to make sure your plants have all the nutrients they need. If the use of fungicides should become necessary, contact your local extension office for recommendations. Camellias are well adapted to our southern climate and can be long lived. They can provide interest in the winter garden and attract pollinators and song birds. Although not immune to some plant diseases, they remain a steadfast addition to the landscape, tried and true.

Gail Griffin is an Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteer with N.C. Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center.