Ideal for decorative purposes, espalier is an artistic and ancient practice of training trees, shrubs, and woody vines by pruning and tying their branches to a frame, flat against a wall, fence, or trellis. Used in France for centuries, particularly with pear and apple trees, this technique is also ideal for small gardens, where it makes it possible to fit a large camellia into a limited space. Espaliers are also a great way to add beauty and elegance to dull walls and austere fences.

Cherished for their masses of magnificent flowers and their luxuriant, evergreen foliage, Camellias make gorgeous blooming espaliers. They provide lush beauty year-round and then burst with profuse, pink, white or red blooms for weeks from fall to spring (depending on climate and variety), rewarding gardeners with exquisite flowers of striking shapes and color at a time of year when the rest of the garden offers little. 

Although most camellias can be trained as an espalier, the fast growing and sun tolerant camellia sasanqua varieties, particularly those that are naturally pendulous, are the plants of choice for espaliers. 

Choose your Espalier Design

Some espaliers patterns are very formal, with limbs pruned into a formal, specific shape. Others are more informal, leaving the limbs to follow a natural form to create whimsical serpentines or naturalized free-form designs.

  • V shaped: Tree is cut to a low wire 15 to 18 inches from the ground; two buds lengthen into branches which are attached to canes that keep them straight, and the canes are attached to another wire that maintains a V shape. The V shape is the first step in producing many other formal patterns.
  • Belgian fence: More than one V shaped espaliers are planted two feet apart, so their branches cross, and are tied to a trellis. Makes a lovely living screen.
  • Horizontal T: Branches are trained horizontally along evenly spaced wires. Start with a V shape where a third bud is trained straight up to another wire. Train other two branches to stepover. In spring of second year, prune the vertical stem to the second wire and again train to a V shape, etc. It takes one year per each level.
  • Palmette or fan: Branches grow in a radiating pattern created when the branches of a V shaped espalier are cut back and lowered slightly. Multiple buds are coaxed to form branches that are tied to a trellis in a radiating pattern. 

Construct your Espalier

Camellias can be espaliered onto walls. However, this technique doesn't always provide good air circulation and promotes diseases. Plants growing too close to walls can suffer from heat stress, as well. In this situation, build a wire or wooden framework to support your camellia. 

  • Set 2 or more posts parallel to the wall according to your desired width for the frame. Place these posts about 2-3 feet (60-90 cm) from the wall or fence to encourage good air circulation around the plants and discourage disease problems.
  • Create your espalier design by stringing wires between the posts. The bottom wire should be at least 2 feet (60 cm) from the ground and subsequent wires 12 to 18 inches apart (30-45 cm), depending on your espalier design. Alternatively, attach lattice to the posts in lieu of wire. 

Camellia Planting and Pruning

Training your camellia should be a simple process. 

  • When choosing a camellia for use as an espalier, select one with open, sprawling growth and several leading branches. A young plant without too much branching will be easier to espalier as it will require less manipulation.
  • Select a site with adequate sunlight exposure. Japanese camellia grows best in partial to full shade while sasanqua camellia can stand full sun if properly watered. Camellias also enjoy some protection from cold winter winds. Since camellias prefer morning sun, plant against an east or north facing wall for best results.
  • Begin by planting your camellias within a few inches of the wire or trellis. Allow the plant to recover from the transplanting process and be well established before gradually pruning it into a flattened profile. This may take up to 2-3 months
  • Gently tie the main or center stem so it grows straight up. 
  • As the stem gets taller, spread the branches and tie them along the first wire or bottom slat of the trellis. Remove any branches that are lower than these. Then tie the branches back in the desired position using soft plastic ties or twine. Avoid using wire as it could cut into the branches and damage them. 
  • As your plants grow, pick the next likely branches and tie them to the next highest support, removing any that do not fit your desired shape. Continue to tie and prune as your plant grows. 
  • Ties are needed about every 8 inches (20 cm) and they will have to be loosened or adjusted as the plant grows.
  • Prune regularly to achieve the flat, two-dimensional effect of your espalier but leave any major pruning until after flowering in fall or spring, depending on what type of camellia you are growing. 

Creating an espalier is time consuming and requires patience but is worth the end result - a fabulous botanical sculpture that will reward you each year with a gorgeous floral display.