Growing camellias from seed is one of the most fascinating parts of camellia propagation. Unlike rooting cuttings, air-layering, or grafting, camellias grown from seed will not be exactly duplicates of the camellias where they originated. All camellia seedlings will be at least slightly different from their parent plants. What this means is that every seedling has the potential to be a new variety. You never know exactly what its growth habit, bloom time, foliage appearance, or bloom will look like until it has begun to grow and mature. Raising camellias from seed is like raising children. They will all be different, and some will turn out better than others. The vast majority of new camellia varieties come from seedlings.
Seed pods on camellias begin to develop at the time of flowering. In some cases, people cross pollinate flowers, but the majority of the pollination comes from insects. After a flower has been pollinated, a seed pod may begin to form. At first it is small and may not even be noticed at all, but if it survives for a little while longer, you will likely notice the seed pods by late spring to early summer.
Each species of camellia is slightly different from the others. In America, the primary species that are grown are Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua, Camellia reticulate, and Hybrids from these species. There are many other species as well, but they are not widely distributed at this time. Each seed pod will look different from the others and mature at different times depending on the species parentage.
Seed from Camellia japonica tend to mature sooner than many of the other species. We usually begin to see seed pods beginning to crack open in mid to late summer. Usually, when you see one or two seed pods beginning to crack open, you can pick all the rest of the seed for similar plants. If you see a few seed pods of Camellia japonica cracking open, make sure that the seed inside the pods are black. This is an indication that they are mature. If they are mature, you could safely pick the remaining seed pods on additional Japonica plants. The same would be said with seed from Camellia sasanqua. If you are not sure if the seed is mature, you can take a knife and cut into one seed pod to seed if the seed is black and mature.
One of the most disappointing thing that can happen is to see a particular seed pod on a plant that you thing would be really interesting, only to see it crack open before you realized it. In this case, the seed could drop out and be lost. One method of preventing the seed from getting lost is to tie a small piece of a nylon stocking around the seed pod to collect the seed if it cracks open before you harvest the seed. This could prevent many disappointments.
Camellia seed do not need to dry out. This is very important to remember. Over a period of time, camellia seed will quickly dry out, so they need to be planted very soon after harvest or stored in the refrigerator. When seed pods are harvested, the pods need to be cut open with a knife to get to the seed or they can be placed in a dry area such as inside the house for a few days. This will cause the pods to crack open allowing you to easily get to the seed. Once you get the seed, you will need to plant them or store them.
Seed pods can have one seed in a pod or many seed in a pod depending upon what species or variety they come from. Seed from the same seed pod can turn out very different from each other. If you are planting just a few seed, you may want to make notes about “pod mates” to compare them later when they mature and bloom. If you are planting many seed, this may take too much time to do. Generally, it is nice to keep all seed of one variety together and make tags later that note the seed parent. This will provide valuable information as your seedling grow, mature, and bloom.
There are many ways to germinate your seed once you have harvested them. You want the seed to be in a moist environment. That means they should not be too wet or too dry. They need to be moist. This is a key point. In nature, the seed would fall off the plant when the seed pods would crack. These seed would end up in the decaying mulch or soil under the plants. This is why it is not uncommon to seed small seedlings growing under large camellias. In planting the seed, you want to mimic the natural conditions that would be found if you were not involved. Natural compost, planting soils, peat moss, and sphagnum peat moss are just a few of the medium that could be used for germination.
Some seed growers soak their seed over night before they plant them. The idea behind this is to see which seed sink and which seed float. If a seed sinks, it is very likely that it will germinate. If a seed floats, it may turn out to be a seed shell that is empty and will likely not germinate. This soaking may help to get moisture in the seed and begin the spouting of the seed. Some people soak the seed and then plant them all whether the sink of float.
Some serious seed growers recommend gently cracking the seed before planting. This can be done with a small hammer on a hard surface. Be careful to be very gentle if you take this route. If you hit the fragile seed too hard, you could damage the seed itself.
Some growers wrap their seed in a damp paper towel and place them in side a Microwave Oven for a few seconds. This is supposed to speed up the germination time. If you try this, be careful not to leave them in the Microwave for more than 5-7 seconds. If you leave them in too long, you could damage the seed.
Nuccio’s Nurseries from California has grown and produced more varieties from seed than most growers. Their method of germinating seed is to fill containers with their growing mix, spread the seed out on top of the mix, cover the seed slightly, keep the containers moist, and then separate the seedlings after they germinate. Each seedling can be potted in individual containers or planted in the ground. This is a simple way to germinate seed.
If you can’t plant the seed immediately, you can store the seed in a refrigerator for up to four years. Many times, the seed will actually begin germinating in the refrigerator after a period of time. If you want to store seed, wrap your seed in a damp but not wet paper towel and place them inside a food storage bag. You can write any information such as seed parent or date harvested on the bag itself. Seal the bag and place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to plant the seed.
Once your seed have begun to germinate, it is a good idea to pinch the very tip off the bottom of each seedling. If you leave this root, it will grow a long tap root if planted in the ground. If you are growing it in a container, you may not have to be as concerned.
Seedlings require much patience. It may take a little as three to four years or as much as ten to twelve years for your seedlings to mature and bloom. You never know exactly how they will turn out, but the anticipation is one of the most exciting things about growing seedlings. When you get your first seedling to bloom for the first time, it is an elation that you will never forget. Join the fun and begin growing your own camellia seedlings!
Large Beautiful Seed Pods of Camellia polydonta
Gene Phillips is one of the owners of Gene’s Nursery in Savannah, Ga. He is a 2nd generation grower and attributes his love of Camellias to his father, who inspired him to breath in the beauty that they bring to him but more importantly to others. In his ‘free’ time, you’ll find him wandering through old gardens, trying to identify flowers or taking countless number of photos to share with others! He also enjoys meeting people and comparing ‘garden’ stories.