Growing Camellias and Gardenias in the Desert

I mentioned “jasmine” last week in my blog and a reader had a question about a similar fragrant plants, camellias, and gardenias. (His daughter-in-law is named Camellia.)

Good question! Many garden centers have camellias, gardenias, and even azaleas prominently displayed at this time of year. Most are in flower and their beauty and fragrance is very tempting. Before you succumb to temptation, realize that these not native to our desert climate and will need some special care.

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Camellia – beautiful and fragrant.

Growing Acid-Loving Flowering Plants in the Desert

Soil

Camellias, gardenias and azaleas need acid soils. Our desert soils are alkaline. Our water is alkaline. Furthermore, all soils have an amazing capacity to buffer themselves, returning to their natural alkaline pH very quickly after any treatment. Given these facts of life, you will need to grow your gardenias, camellias, or azaleas in pots with potting soil for the rest of their life.

You ask – Can’t I just add plenty of nice acidic compost to desert soil?
Jim Hawk’s wife loves gardenias. Before he died, he dug her a four foot by four foot pit into the desert soil, filled it with potting soil, and planted gardenias for her. They did wonderfully for the first year, but bloomed less the second year. A soil test revealed the soil was turning alkaline. The plant get acid treatments, but they have bloomed less well each year. With his example in mind, I advocate simply growing these acid-lovers in containers.

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Azalea are locally available now, but are native to acid-rich soils.
Keep Cool

Gardenias, camellias and azaleas come from cooler climates than ours. Even the sweltering deep south doesn’t get into our hundred-and-teens. This is another reason to keep these plants in pots. Use unglazed terra-cotta ceramic pots, and thus water will evaporate through the sides of the pot helping keep the roots cool – like they prefer.

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Gardenia tolerate living in containers and will bloom.
Light

Do not place gardenias, camellias, or azaleas in full sun, no matter what the label says. Even in the winter, our full sun is more than they can deal with. A north-facing side of the home works great. If you have a long entry way to your home, as many homes of new construction do, consider a gardenia or camellia. They will like living in pots in this shady site, and you will welcome visitors to your home with flowers, at least part of the year.

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Bonsai are lovely to look at, but a bonsai azalea would be happier in an land with higher humidity.
Water

These plants are from moister climates than our own. They do best when kept moist but not soggy wet. Once plants are established in pots, water every three to five days in winter, daily in summer.

Humidity

One aspect of water is the water in the air, or the humidity. While gardenias and camellias can tolerate our desert low humidity, in my experience azaleas do not survive low humidity so well. If you place their pot under a sheltering tree, and out of the wind this will help somewhat.

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Yellowing leaf in the background of this gardenia shows alkaline-induced-iron-chlorosis.
Fertilizer

Use a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants. For best bloom, use a bloom fertilizer (high in phosphorous) in September (well before frost). Use a standard fertilizer after the bloom period is done. Follow label directions.

Alkaline-induced-iron-chlorosis is very common with acid-lovers growing in our soil.  This includes gardenias, citrus, and even roses. I wrote about treatment in the August Calendar on this blog.

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Flowers

Camellias and azaleas bloom in the cooler months, gardenias bloom as it warms up. In nurseries, some gardenias are blooming now as they have been forced in greenhouses. The flowers of gardenia and camellia make lovely cut flowers, but will remain more fragrant on the bush for longer time.  You decide if you want to bring cut flowers inside.

Your Choice

You can grow non-natives in the desert if you want. It is your yard, your time and labor, and your water bill. Never underestimate the aesthetic function of plants. If it brings joy into your life, you should have the plants you desire. Life is tough enough in so many other ways, your garden should be a place for you to find ease.

More about growing acid-lovers in our alkaline soils in this book.  If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my free lectures that I mention on my Gardening With Soule Facebook page. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there I may get a few pennies.

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2 thoughts on “Growing Camellias and Gardenias in the Desert”

  1. Appreciate the way you say they aren’t native but heres how you can work around it if you really want to. Get tired of the ones that froth at the mouth and want us to have _only_ natives.

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