Grafting Camellias

by Hal Vanis -

Grafting is probably the best way to increase your camellia collection, whether from your favorite plant or a new hard to get variety. Cuttings can be bought form different sources, but most camellia growers will gladly share “wood” with you.

A few years ago, Jim Peninger showed me how to graft using the cleft-graft (“stump-cutting”) method whereby you cut off the top of the plant and graft on to what is left: the stump. We succeeded with each one of seven grafts. I thought I had mastered the technique. The next year, I grafted fifteen camellias the same way, but this time, I only got seven. Some of the successful grafts were moved to a shade house. I did not know what went wrong when the grafts died after they had grown 12” to 18”. The third year, I grafted twenty and only had nine “takes.” When I took the root stock out of the containers for inspection, I found that they were all dead. The fourth year, believing that it was not worth it, I did not graft anything. In a conversation with Hulyn Smith, I learned that many growers had a big problem losing root stock.

I went to Georgia to visit him and to see his wonderful collection of camellias. On our tour of his site, Hulyn showed me high grafts he did on his camellias that were planted in the ground. He told me that he had good luck with them. After these grafts take and are well callused and healed, he air layers the plant or limb below the graft. Voila, a new camellia, ready to plant.

On my way home, I started thinking about what I had seen. Since I did not have much luck with cleft grafting and lost too much root stock, I wanted to find the answers. I did not have the camellias growing in the ground necessary to use Hulyn’s technique. I thought that if I grafted on a one-gallon or three-gallon (I now prefer the three gallon size) and left a healthy branch below the graft, the root stock might not die.

Three years ago, we grafted 135 with 60% success and no loss of root stock. Last year we grafted 150 with 80% success and no root stock loss. At this writing, late in the year, we have 183 successful grafts of the original 230 made. For the third year in a row, we experienced no loss of root stock. This is a success rate of a little more than 81%. We graft in late January; it seems to work best for us.

In our experience, we found that grafting takes time. We prepare our root stock to have it ready to receive the scion. Preparation of the scion cannot be rushed; the butt end has to be flat on both sides and that end must be a wedge. After the scion is cut we soak it in a fungicide solution. I prefer Heritage™ because it covers a broad range of fungi. When our plant is prepared and ready for grafting, we wash it with our fungicide solution before the scion is placed. We use a spray bottle and wash the plant again after the scion is in place.

We start with a 27” to 28” length of wire, that is approximately 10 to 12 gauge diameter. For our cage, we use aluminum or plastic coated wire that we form into the shape of a paddle. (Coat hangers will do, but the wire may not be sturdy enough to prevent slipping. We cross two wires over the grafted scion and use electrical tape to hold the ends in place. Plastic produce bags from the grocery store make very good grafting cages. Next, we spray the cage (inside of the bag) with fungicide and put the bag over the wire frame. We use more electrical tape to seal the open end of the bag around the root stock below the graft. Finally, a paper bag is placed over the cage to protect it from light. Since we have a branch below our graft, we water a little to keep the plant active.

Next, since we have left a branch in place, we fertilize the plant lightly. After that, we insert Jack’s Secret™ tablets around the edge of the container, per directions. This strengthens and helps keep our root stock strong and vigorous through the grafting and healing process plus, it gives new growth a healthy and strong start. After this is done, we are through with the initial grafting process. We move the plant into a propagation area and the waiting begins.

Later on, when the scion shows two or three new leaves, we cut the corner of the plastic bag to start the hardening process. After a week or so, we remove the plastic bag. After another week, we remove the plastic bag, but keep the paper bag on for shade. After the third week, we remove the paper bag and the wire cage. Now our new graft is ready for the shade house. About a year later, we remove the branch that we left in place on the root stock. This can vary based on the health and appearance of the graft.

We use two camellia varieties for our root stock, ‘Kanjiro’ (C. hiemalis) and ‘Winter’s Star’ (C. hybrid and winter-hardy: zone 6). Our experience has demonstrated that these two cultivars are the best. With the increase in grafting and the need for good root stock, we have started growing ‘Kanjiro’ and ‘Winter’s Star’; in larger numbers. Hopefully, in another year or so, we will have an adequate supply of root stock available.

Conclusion
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