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Featured Plant


Japanese camellia


Scientific Name: Camellia japonica

Common Names: Japanese camellia, common camellia, shan cha (Chinese, “mountain tea”), tsubaki (Japanese, “glossy or thick-leaf tree”)

Family: Theaceae

Plant Type: Evergreen shrub to small tree, reaching 30 feet in the wild.

Environment: Mixed forests in eastern China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, from sea level to 7500 feet. In the garden, prefers moist, well-drained, acid soil, morning sun, and some afternoon dappled shade. Hardy to USDA Zone 6.

Bloom: White, pink, or red flowers, with many variations in size and complexity in cultivated types.

Uses: As a specimen or as a companion shrub, Camellia japonica serves well as mid-late winter highlight and a solid, year-round block of deep green. Used in bonsai, and can be cultivated in larger containers as well. Traditionally, flowers have been be eaten, used for medicine, and used to obtain dye. C. japonica wooden axe handles and combs dating back 5,000 years in Japan have been unearthed.


Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica)

With bright-colored, large blooms that welcome in the New Year, Camellia japonica brightens the winter with weeks of concentrated color from January through March. Flowers colored white to pink to red add a welcome spectrum to the dormant winter garden on a glossy, broad-leaved, evergreen shrub.


A native of China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, Camellia japonica grows as an understory shrub to tree in mixed forests from sea level to 7500 feet. In the wild, specimens can reach over 30 feet tall. Cultivated for many centuries throughout its native range, the Japanese camellia has more recently been widely cultivated in gardens around the globe, and was introduced to the United States in the 18th Century. Today, there are more than 20,000 registered cultivars of Camellia japonica, and dozens of these have received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. The camellia is a natural companion to other temperate Asian woodland natives, including azaleas, hydrangeas, maples, magnolias, peonies, rhododendrons, and roses.


Hardy to USDA Zone 6 (to 0 F), Camellia japonica fares well throughout the greater Bay Area and inland to the Central Valley. In spite of the regular, summer rains occurring throughout its native range, once established this camellia species is tolerant of reduced summer water. Full morning sun is ideal, with some afternoon part shade. Camellias prefer well-draining, acid soil.

In addition to global ornamental usage, the leaves of Camellia japonica are used as tea and an edible oil is obtained from the seeds. The Chinese common name for Camellia japonica is shan cha, or mountain tea. Flowers can be eaten, used for medicine, or used to obtain dye. Though its native range is broad, population numbers of Camellia japonica are on the decline as a result of disturbance from human activities, ranging from road construction and environmental development to seedling collection and removal by horticulturists for ornamental and rootstock usage.


Article and Profile by Corey Barnes. Photographs by Joanne Taylor.

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