With mature heights from 6 to 40 feet, glossy green leaves and flowers varying from austere 1-inch-diameter singles to opulent 4-inch doubles, camellias (Camellia spp.) can suit almost anyone’s taste. Perennial in areas ranging from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 through 11, they don’t come true from seed and usually are reproduced by semi-hardwood cuttings.
Take camellia cuttings in mid-summer to early autumn after their new growth has had time to harden somewhat. After cleaning the blades of your pruning shears with rubbing alcohol, harvest the cuttings in the early morning of an overcast day.
Snip a 3- to 5-inch piece from the tip of a vigorous shoot, counting down five leaf nodes from the top and severing the cutting at an angle just below the fifth node. Remove the lowest leaves, allowing only two or three to remain on or near the cutting’s tip. Wrap the bases of the cuttings in a damp paper towel and keep them inside a plastic bag until you pot them up.
Because camellia cuttings generally take at least 6 weeks to 3 months to root, it’s a good idea to place them in a container which can be sealed up for that amount of time. Garden show host and columnist Walter Reeves recommends a transparent 2-liter soda bottle for this purpose. Cut the top off of the bottle, about 5 inches up from its base, with heavy-duty shears. Upend the bottom part and use a sharp nail and hammer to punch several drainage holes in its base. After returning it to its formerly upright position, fill this part of the bottle with about 4 inches of a damp, sterile and fast-draining mix such as 1 part peat moss and 1 part sand.
Sterilize the blade of a sharp knife with rubbing alcohol and peel a narrow strip of bark from the side of each cutting, starting about 5/8-inch to 1 inch above the cutting’s base and running down to its base. Dip the lower half of the cutting in a liquid rooting hormone for 5 seconds. For semi-hardwood cuttings, mix 1 part of a rooting concentrate containing IBA -- Indole-3 butyric acid -- with 9 parts of water, or whatever amounts are indicated in the instructions. After you dip the cutting, insert it to a depth of about half its height in the peat/sand mix. For example, a 4-inch cutting would be planted about 2 inches deep, with its top 2 inches and leaves remaining above-ground. You should be able to fit 4 or 5 cuttings into the container, clustering them near the center and far enough apart so that their leaves don’t touch.
When you have finished potting up the cuttings, fit the top of the soda bottle back in place again so that it covers the cuttings without their leaves touching its sides. Attach that top securely to the bottom of the bottle again by wrapping duct tape around the crack where the two pieces come together.
If you are rooting the cuttings in mid-summer, place the capped bottle in the shade of a tree outdoors. If you waited until autumn to begin, set the capped bottle under an indoor grow-light timed to run for 16 hours per day instead. The optimum temperature for rooting is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but the cuttings will tolerate temperatures from 60 to 82 degrees F.
Once you see roots in the peat/sand mix, begin to take off the bottle cap for short periods of time, gradually lengthening those periods until the cuttings become accustomed to the lower humidity. After that point, you can cut the tape and begin removing the top of the bottle in the same gradual manner. Once the cuttings are growing well with no covering, shift them into individual 4-inch pots with drainage holes. They should be ready to transplant into the ground about 6 to 8 months later.