by John Fowler, Western Australia
“Life in nature strives to reproductively perpetuate its kind as prolifically as possible, even to the detrimental health of the parent plant. The common dying gesture of a plant may be its most prodigious seed crop. We know that high fruiting productivity is deleterious to optimum plant vegetative and flower quality. The knowledgeable camellia grower and exhibitor reacts to nature’s over-productivity by disbudding their camellias to reduce the strain and energy drain upon their plants.”
Disbudding ensures that each flower will have enough moisture and nutrient to expand to its best qualities. Generally we begin disbudding in March-April in Australia and continue, according to the cultivar, to just before bloom time, for it is better late than never.
Like the Olympic high jumper who concentrates on strengthening only his leaping leg, we must make sure that plant energy is channeled to only a few selected buds rather than diluted in many buds. Some say never allow more than one bud per lateral twig.
Some exceptions to this are the Sasanqua and cluster-flowering species where no disbudding is done. I have found spacing buds of varying sizes about 15 cm apart, and on alternate sides of the twigs works well.
Where the chief effect desired from a group of camellias is a show of massed colour, you do not need to disbud as the size of the flowers is not important. For show-perfect blooms of extra size and form, a more drastic approach must be taken to disbudding. Reduce the buds down to a single bud at the terminal of each branch and remove all buds further down the stem.
Hybridisers find that more of their pollinations are successful if the total bloom load is reduced. Again the energy saved by disbudding is transferred to seed development.
Before disbudding you must determine which are growth buds and which are flower buds. Flower buds are usually more round and thicker than growth buds. Another test is to press sideways or slightly twist the bud. A flower bud will break off easily while a growth bud will resist the pressure.
It can readily be seen that a large peony flower will require a lot more water and nutrient than a single flower. Fewer buds are left on varieties that bear the heavier and larger flowers.
Marilee Gray, USA, says camellias with blooms over 65 mm are disbudded to only one terminal bud. If the bloom is lightweight, regardless of its size, she may opt to leave a second bud on the third or fourth leaf down from the tip.
It is a general rule that the number of buds will be in direct relation to the amount of sun the camellia receives. If possible place a heavy budder in more shade and a shy bloomer where it gets more sun.
Mr O.E. Hopfer USA, states if foliage is more important to you than flowers, grow your camellias in shade. If you want more flowers, grow your camellias in sun. In fact my general positioning of any camellia variety is to give it as much sun as the leaves will stand without burning them.”
Mr J. Mc Clurkin, USA, states “Partial shade has two aspects, namely summer and winter. It is commonly but falsely believed that camellias must be shaded from the summer sun. Actually most camellias will do very well in summer sun if they have extra water when needed (a wetting agent and a good mulch also helps.) In the wintertime the sun is not as strong when the flowers come out, so it will not bum them very much. An exception to this is when you live in an area that gets a lot of overnight dew and the sun will bum the wet petals.”
The most vigorous growth on a plant will be found at the ends of branches and those at the top of the tree. The best scions and blooms are also found there, so leave more flower buds in these areas. This depends on how tall or old the bush is and this can be controlled by regularly pruning the plant.
The position of a bud in relation to its surrounding leaves and stem should always be considered. If it is seen that the flower on opening will come into contact with other leaves or stems, they should be discarded. All buds left should be in a position where they can open freely. Flower buds in the interior area of the bush are removed as the flower will be damaged in removing it; they will not be their normal size, and will take energy from prime-location buds.
Growers who are grooming flowers for competitive awards sometimes deliberately leave buds which will produce flowers facing the ground. Therefore the flowers will be less likely to get damaged by dust, debris, insects, bees and the rain. In the case of heavy bud setters, do not start disbudding too early in the season, which results in another crop of buds replacing those that have been removed. I have found that removing the larger early buds on heavy bud setters like ‘Great Eastern’ and ‘Emperor of Russia Variegated’ to be beneficial as the early flowers do not seem to open properly.
Some advocate lightly pruning camellias after the flower buds have set.
This might work for the heavy bud-setting varieties but I prefer to remove the buds by hand. With pruning there would be a tendency to remove too many flower buds.
If you are growing plants purely for exhibition purposes it may be beneficial.
It is something you will learn by experimenting with different camellia varieties. The number of flower buds to keep depends on the size of the plant, the variety, size of blooms and climatic conditions. Some camellias set buds that appear to develop, but they never open. Your camellias have personalities as distinctive as ours. Before selecting varieties, try to determine if they will bloom easily in your area. Don’t fight the genes. You won’t win. The cultivar ‘Otome’ or ‘Pink Perfection’ (U.S.A.) sets far too many buds as part of its genes. A bad habit of the C. williamsii species is that most of them overbud, so only leave one bud at any point and discard the rest.
Climatic conditions matter more in the U.S.A. where flowers must come out before the winter freeze sets in. In colder climates especially if you have a lot of cloudy weather you will get less flower buds to form. In the U.S.A. disbudding is an effective weapon against the spread of Camellia Flower Blight, which we hope never comes to Australia. Marilee Gray says that when Mt St Helen’s blew up in America it delayed the bud set and development of camellia blooms.
The ‘Elegans’ family of camellias do not flower well in inland areas but Saluenensis hybrids like these areas. The formal doubles do not like coastal areas as salt sticks their petals together. ‘Tiptoe’ was one of my favourite camellias when living in Sydney but it does not do well in Perth where the climate is hotter and drier.
Some varieties like ‘Royal Velvet’ and ‘Nuccio’s Carousel’ withstand cold to freezing temperatures better than others. With late-flowering varieties, leave only the first lot of buds and remove all others.
Disbudding should be coordinated with fertilising of camellias for both procedures have the same effect. Some say a good plan is to fertilise during the growing season, disbud March April and then fertilise a month before the blooms are expected to open. At Camellia Grove Nursery, St Ives, Sydney, throughout the 1970s and 1980s all camellias and azaleas including stock plants were fertilised on a monthly basis throughout the year. No detrimental effects occurred on the plants from following this practice.
As a supplement to disbudding, some growers snip off any new foliage that appears next to flower buds that are about to open. This is only effective if done just before the flower is about to open. If done a considerable time before the bud opens it may have the opposite
effect of that intended. The plants’ energies may then be directed into the formation of new leaf buds at the point where the new growth was cut off. Rather than cutting off the new growth, it may be best to remove the growth bud as it starts to swell as occurred in the following situation. At Camellia Grove Nursery. St Ives, Sydney, in March 1984, ten C. Nitidissima cutting grafts done in December 1983 were forming flower buds.
However, when these small plants started into new growth, the flower buds withered and fell off. The growth buds on the remaining C. Nitidissima were carefulIy removed and the flower buds slowly developed. On the 16th August 1984 the first flower bud opened. These plants were in a glasshouse and not outside.
Apart from disbudding, the most important factor bearing on the production of camellia flowers is a consistent and adequate supply of water.
BALLING AND BUD DROP
This occurs where the buds drop off before opening into flowers and is referred to as bullheading, bullnosing or balling. The buds become very tight, have an abnormally glossy or shiny appearance, then they split and fall off. This is partly due to inherent characteristics of some varieties and largely confined to cultivars having a great number of petals, especially the formal doubles.
The ‘Elegans’ cultivars and ‘D Hertzilla’ etc. are also prone to balling. Marilee Gray (USA), found that members of the Elegans are most sensitive to light needs. A major reason for these plants balling is that they are placed where they receive too much shade. Jean and David Evans, at Rolystone. WA. Had some ‘Elegans’ camellias growing and flowering well, only getting some shade from mature Eucalypt trees. In Cape Town, South Africa, in a garden planted around 1850, in an exposed position, one of the best camellias to florish is ‘Elegans’.
Alan Searle said balling of camellia flowers is due to a deficiency of manganese, or more likely boron. Roy Thompson (USA) states – “Balling indicates a disproportion between the amount of heat present and the available water supply, ie. the heat calls for faster opening action but the plant cannot supply the water fast enough to open its buds, hence they ball. So a sudden change in weather causes the flowers to stop opening rapidly, fail to reach maturity and ball.
Balling is a complaint of camellias growing close to the sea. The salt deposits carried in by winds cause the petals to stick together. Follow a watering pattern to keep the plants moist, as buds will ball and drop when the soil is either too wet or too dry.
A deficiency in feeding can cause the buds to ball and drop. You might have fed your camellias, but some nearby greedy tree might have taken most of the nutrients from it.
From an experiment done in the Shoalhaven area of N.S.W an old ‘Lady St Clair’ camellia was given doses of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate), every six weeks. The following year the camellia had 37 blooms which all opened perfectly, whereas previously it only had a few flowers which didn’t open properly. If you liquid feed your camellias with a complete or all-purpose fertiliser you should not have to apply extra magnesium. The Hazlewoods (NSW) used the following remedies on their ‘Lady St Clair’ camellia to overcome balling flowers. Sometimes the bush was sprayed with cold tea, or they wrapped a cloth soaked in cold tea around the base of the plant, or regularly threw the teapot residue under the plant. A brew of the bark of Acacia decurrens, which contains no magnesium, also worked well. Abnormal weather conditions can cause buds to drop. Freezing temperatures can cause buds to drop before opening. This may be especially associated with young plants or some varieties that are more sensitive to cold weather such as the Camellia reticulata hybrids.
Bud mites cause shrinkage and dryness of the flower buds and this is evidenced by the following symptoms. The buds only half develop, turn brown and either remain on the bush or fall off, and flowering occurs later than
usual, is sparse and of poor quality. Your camellia could have a glut of flower buds and seeds, due to being under stress from lack of water or a root problem, and sheds some buds to lighten its load. Good old fashioned gales will certainly cause the flower buds to drop. Small children with big sticks can be can be guaranteed to remove more than a few buds.
Alan McGovern (NSW) states that on some cultivars there are no problems on young and mature bushes. Some cultivars like ‘Mrs Anne Marie Hovey’ consistently shed buds when pot grown and where a young bush is involved. However with maturity it retains its buds and flowers freely.
The following is from an article called Climate For Bloom Initiation by J. Carrol Reiners (USA). “Experiments for camellia response in the controlled environment of a phytotron give us an insight into the stimuli for bud and bloom initiation.
The flowering is controlled by two climatic factors, night temperature and the relative length of day and night.
Flower bud initiation does not start in the summer until the ratio of light to dark is 15 hours of daylight and 9 hours of darkness. Concurrently the night temperature must be about 16’C. For flower buds to open, the environmental factors are nearly reversed and long cold nights are required. Night temperatures must be less than 16’C and the night longer than the day. It is interesting to note that if summer conditions are maintained after flower buds have formed they fall off.
Longer nights and cooler temperatures are necessary to hold the buds for continued maturity.”
Disbudding Camellias , by J. Carrol Reiners, The Camellia Journal, August 1986
Climate for Bloom Initiation, by Carrol Reiners, The Camellia Journal, May 1984
Quality Control by Disbudding, by Pat Goonan, ACRS 1967 Annual,
An article in ACRS Adelaide Plains Branch Newsletter, March 1990
The Camellia’, Edited by D. Feathers and M. Brown, Published by American Camellia Society – 1978
Bud Drop of Camellias, by Betty Hotchkiss, The Camellia Journal, May 1995, November 1995
Answers to some Common Problems, by Diana Scarfo, ACRS WA Branch Newsletter, July 1993
From the Archives – Disbudding, by Roy T. Thompson. The Camellia Review, September-October 2001
Gold! Gold!! Gold!! by A.E. (Peter) Campbell, Camellia News, December 1984
When Buds Fail, by Marilee Gray, The Camellia Review November – December 1998
ABC’s of Disbudding, American Camellia Society Yearbook, 1982