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Master Gardeners show how air layer process generates new camellias
The Hall County Master Gardeners and the Hall County School System offered a free class Thursday on knowing, growing, and propagating camellias. Camillia experts Dr. Del Mixon and Dr. Bill Jackson led the class.

When Melanie Clark, a Hall County Master Gardener, moved from her home in Gainesville to North Hall, she packed her belongings but had to leave her 15 beautiful camellias behind.

But on Thursday afternoon, she learned a technique that could help her bring her plants to her new home.

The Hall County Master Gardeners sponsored a class on camellias Thursday afternoon at the Hall County School Systems Office on Green Street in Gainesville.

Dr. Bill Jackson and Dr. Dell Mixon taught a group of about 15 gardeners about the ways to grow and propagate the prize-winning shrubs.

Mixon demonstrated a technique called “air layering” that allows the plant to develop a new root system that can reproduce another plant without having to cut branches from the plant.

Clark said she’s going to have to try it on her own camellias.

“I love camellias,” Clark said. “If I go ahead and do that air layering, I can have some of my prized ones because when you have some that have been on your property for 20 years, they’re some of your favorite ones.”

Mixon said now, while plants are beginning to grow, is the best time to begin. The process takes about one whole season to complete, and new plants can be planted by the end of October.

He shared tips from the American Camellia Society on how to successfully air layer healthy plants.

The first thing a gardener should do when air layering is to pick a healthy vertical limb, 1 or 2 feet from the top of the plant, then remove a ring of bark about 1 or 2 inches wide from the branch between two parallel cuts.

Once the bark is removed, all the green tissue under the bark, the cambium, should be removed by scraping it off with a knife.

The now-naked part of the branch should be covered with well-soaked and wrung out sphagnum moss and wrapped around the mark with a piece of tin foil.

Mixon said once a gardener gets to this part of the process, it’s important to just leave it alone until October when the feeder roots should be ready for planting.

Once the roots are grown from the branch, the limb can be cut along the bottom of the marking and planted.

Mixon cautioned to watch for birds that may pick at the shiny foil; if that happens, carefully adjust the cover on the growing roots.

Mixon said the process also helps to top off plants, many varieties of which can grow to be 15 feet tall.

Malvina Moffett, who attended the class with her husband, said they, too, will have to try the technique on their own plants.

“We have some camellias that have gotten too tall,” Moffett said. “And so we’re thinking about pruning them but now that we know we can do that, we’ll just do that and we can have new plants. So that’s a great tip to know about.”

The class also passed around a variety of pink, red, white and yellow blooms while Mixon and Jackson explained the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them.

While primarily used as landscaping plants, the blooms are often picked to be displayed in homes. Though they are usually fine in vases, Jackson said camellias often look better if they’re floated in bowls of water.

The plants bloom during winter and are typically very hardy when established, which can take a number of years. But Mixon said the individual plants can be a bit peculiar in their particular preferences.

Not all varieties have the same preference for sun and shade. Usually, it’s safe to move a plant from one area to another if it doesn’t seem to do well in its particular location.

Moffett said she once had a plant that lived in the shade for five years and didn’t grow. After she moved the plant to a sunnier location, it grew to be 15 feet tall.

“These things are weird,” Mixon said. “They’re unpredictable.”