by Harold L. Paige, Lafayette, CA & C. Norwood Hastie, Jr., Charleston, SC -
Careful and scientific pruning of camellias has now become an accepted part of their culture and care, although proper pruning is perhaps the most neglected phase of camellia culture today. Perhaps the practice would be more freely employed if the grower gave more thought to the problems served by pruning and thereby developed greater confidence in his undertaking.
There are two primary reasons for pruning. Other reasons apply in specific instances, such as the growing of camellias for the cut-flower market where symmetry and form of plant contour is unimportant, but the two principal reasons for pruning are those which confront every camellia grower: one is to improve and maintain the health and physical well-being of the plant; the other is to improve the appearance of the plant.
The health and physical well being of the camellia plant require that the pruner determine the difference between good wood and wood which should be removed for the benefit of the plant. One method suggested for the consideration of the novice is that he examine the twigs growing in the shady interior of the plant and compare them with the vigorous shoots on the outside of the plant. It will be noted that some are dead; others will be of small caliper. Still other twigs will have, at best, only one weak terminal bud and no lateral bud shoots in contrast with top shoots with two or more well-developed terminal leaf buds and lateral buds along the stem. It should be noted that frequently the annual growth at the top of the plant will equal that of several years on the interior twigs. Examination of any branch will readily disclose the number of growth buds; color and texture of the bark will show great contrast. That of interior twigs is dull and brown and gray, rough and knotty; bark of vigorous apical shoots is light brown and smooth. Plants should be studied with these factors in mind until the pruner can detect at a glance which wood should be removed. Ability to detect the difference can be gained only by working with the plants.
The interior twigs which have been described should be removed. The ideally pruned, mature camellia plant is one with an interior completely free of twigs and foliage, with lower limbs pruned clear of the surrounding soil. The outer perimeter of the plant will then become more dense and symmetrical. The plant will be given greater health and vigor as well as improved appearance. It may not be possible to accomplish this in a single season.
Pest control, particularly the control of scale, is closely tied in with pruning. The observer will note how scale is favored on branches near the ground and seems to thrive on interior twigs. Removal of lower branches and interior growth, particularly on plants not in containers, eliminates materially scale-breeding areas and enables insecticides to perform their services more effectively. It is difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate scale by spraying if plant growth is so thick that the spray will not penetrate to all parts of the plant or if there are branches so close to the ground that the underleaf surface cannot be sprayed. A plant badly infested with scale must be drastically pruned or much of the spraying effort will be in vain. Watch for and remove deformed curled leaves; they harbor much scale.
Many growers hesitate to remove low branches in the belief that too many buds may be lost, but flowers near the ground seldom amount to much because they are usually ruined by dirt and mud. Branches or foliage on field-grown plants less than 12 inches from the ground may be considered to be too low.
Restoration of old camellias to vigorous health cannot be accomplished without severe pruning. An old camellia through lack of proper care and feeding for years on end becomes a mass of long, stringy, knotty branches. Heavy feeding will serve little purpose unless this mass of poor wood is pruned out. A practical explanation seems to be that these branches have atrophied to such an extent that they are unable to put out new growth. Removal of those branches will force growth into new channels which will eventually dominate the plant. To prune an old camellia properly, each branch should be examined from the outer end and followed toward the main trunk. Usually somewhere between the tip and the trunk there will be a vigorous shoot, perhaps small, starting out. Remove the branch at this point, leave the shoot to break out and grow. If a plant is in such poor condition that good medial shoots cannot be found, the best course to pursue is to remove a large portion of the poor branches and wait to see what parts will put out new growth. Portions which fail to respond to this treatment should be cut back further.
One excellent result of pruning is the rehabilitation of the root system. Sometimes roots are lost by being cut or injured in transplanting; occasionally the roots rot from excessive moisture in the soil or, as often happens, especially in container culture, a plant will dry out and lose much of its feeder roots. For any of these or other reasons in which the root system may sustain damage, such plants if not pruned may take years to return to normal if indeed they do not die meantime. The balance of top and root is upset; the remaining root system is inadequate to support the top. The balance must be restored by the only means possible, which is to cut back the top to the point where the root system can properly support it. Many cases require the removal of one-half to one-third of the top. This sounds drastic, but it may save the plant. The pruner should not worry about pruning too severely. If so much top is removed that the root overbalances the top, top growth will restore the balance. It is quite possible for such a plant to return to near normal if damage has not been too great, although more frequently two seasons will be required for full recovery.