Southern California Camellia Society


by T. Savige, Australia -

The practice of disbudding (removing surplus flower buds from plants) is as old as horticulture itself and based upon the simple mathematical principle that the fewer divisions made in any substance, the larger each will be. Theoretically, it presupposes that a plant can produce only a certain total quantity of blooms satisfactorily; consequently, if better blooms are desired, their number must be reduced. This applies not only to the size but to the quality of the flowers as well, for the available nutrients and water (the latter constituting over 90% of the substance of a camellia flower) are then spread over a fewer number of blooms.

The first thing that must be determined is to distinguish between flower buds and leaf buds, for their appearance is similar and they develop at approximately the same time. Camellia blooms that are of compound structure (double, rose form, peony form and anemone form flowers) have a large number of petals and the buds are therefore more round in shape than the semidouble and single forms, which tend to be slender and pointed—the shape of the growth buds. This makes the matter of distinguishing between the two somewhat more difficult. In such case, the best way to determine which to remove is to press sidewise against, or twist the bud slightly. If it is a flower bud, usually it will break off the stem readily, but if a leaf bud it will resist the pressure and show reluctance to rube off. It is also normally the case that the leaf buds appear singly, whereas the flower buds may set almost any number up to about a dozen in a cluster. Removal of the excess buds in such case is much more difficult and will probably require using both hands—one supporting the stem while the other twists off the unwanted buds.

Generally speaking in the care and culture of camellias one can prescribe pretty broad rules. That is to say, with some minor deviations, as to such things as fertilizer (certain C. japonicas and C. reticulatas, for example, seem to prefer less) what is good for one is good for all. In the case of disbudding, however, we have something that requires ore specific direction. That is because of two reasons: (1) the propensity for budsetting varies a great deal as between camellia varieties and species, and (2) whether or not to disbud will depend largely upon the usage to which the camellia’s florescence is to be put.

Disbudding accomplishes two things, primarily: it concentrates the plant’s energies on the development of few flowers; it regulates the position and spacing of the blooms on the branch so that each may open unhindered. It is also possible to so disbud as to reduce the danger of damage to the blossoms by the movement of nearby leaves and twigs or of the flower itself. Even where it is desired to leave on a substantial quantity of buds so as to have a good mass effect when the camellia is in bloom, there is an advantage to disbudding lightly in such a way that the flowers will be alternately on either side of the branch, which permits of closer spacing but without the interference of one flower with the next.

In the case of C. sasanquas and camellias whose principal purpose is to produce a mass blooming effect, without regard to the quality of the individual flower, there is, of course, little to be gained by disbudding. There is the further fact that because the buds are so numerous, the work becomes exceedingly tedious. Furthermore, where the life of the individual blossom is fleeting a very great many buds are necessary in order to provide a continuity of bloom. This same consideration makes it desirable to leave on buds of various sizes (stages of development) so that blooms will be had over a longer period than would be the case if only the largest buds were left.

Some camellias, notably the C. reticulatas, have a tendency to concentrate their bud set on the terminals of the branches instead of distributing them fairly evenly. In some cases, this results in a veritable mass of buds at the end of the twig and necessitates drastic action. Some care is required to avoid breaking off the entire bud population.

It is a fairly universal rule that the number of buds will be in direction relation to the amount of sun the camellia received, broadly speaking. Thus there is the budding habit of the camellia to consider when choosing the environment in which the camellia is to live. One would be better off to place a heavy budder, such as ‘Lotus’ or ‘C. M. Hovey’ in fairly deep shade and a shy bloomer such as ‘Guilio Nuccio’ and most of the C. reticulatas, where the amount of sunlight will be quite substantial.

In the case of the heavier bud setters, it is a fairly common mistake to start disbudding too early in the season which simply results in another crop or crops of buds replacing those removed. There is nothing gained because the energy that would be saved with respect to the development of the first set is expended in growing another set or sets, and the effect is largely wasted.

In evaluating a camellia, it is quite important that the budsetting habit be taken into consideration. If it is at either one of the extremes, the value of the camellia is lessened, for a shy bloomer yields an insufficient reward while an excessively heavy budder causes an inordinate amount of work assuming, of course, that its function is to furnish a source of cut flowers rather than a mass blooming effect in the garden.

In practice, some growers (particularly exhibitors) have gone so far as to treat a camellia like a chrysanthemum, actually removing all except a few branches from small plants, on each of which only a single bud is left, so as to throw all the vigor into just a few blooms. At the other extreme is the person who pays absolutely no attention to the quantity of buds, permitting the plant to attempt to open an unconscionable number of flowers, which then develop undersized and misshapen due to the lack of space and/or energy necessary by which to open properly. It is not the purpose of this discussion to take issue with either practice but rather to guide a course midway between such extremes.

There is more than one way of removing unwanted flower buds from a camellia—a much easier way than laboriously picking off surplus buds one by one. A very satisfactory method is to prune the camellia lightly in summer, after the buds have formed, thus eliminating a great number of them in one operation and, at the same time, performing a desirable operation that will produce a more beautiful plant, as well as a healthier one. Actually, the pruning can be either light or heavy, depending upon the objective, but it should be borne in mind that the brownish twigs from last year’s growth are the only flowering wood on a camellia.

From the foregoing, it will be seen that, while disbudding is not an absolute necessity, it is certainly recommended as a practice calculated to give the best results.