Camellia craze

02/15/2012 12:19 PM

02/21/2012 2:17 PM

Quick, plant lovers: What do Alabama, Sacramento, the Augusta National Golf Club and Boston Harbor have in common?

If you said “camellias,” you’ll likely be among the first in line at the Charlotte Camellia Society’s annual camellia show March 10-11 at Blacklion, 10605 Park Road.

You’ll be in good company. Southern gardeners have prized these hardy evergreen shrubs with their lovely, fanciful blossoms since they were introduced to the colonies over two centuries ago. The oldest camellia plant in this part of the world is thought to be at Middleton Plantation near Charleston, SC.

But in the long recorded history of camellias, their notable success in the New World is only a footnote. The plants can live up to 800 years. Native to the Far East, camellias represent up to 250 species, the most famous member being camellia sinensis – the tea plant – giving it major commercial importance because tea is made from its leaves.

Hence, its headline status in the so-called “Boston Tea Party” that helped trigger the American Revolution.

While leaves from the plant continue to quench the thirst of tea drinkers worldwide, non-commercial gardeners enjoy camellias for the beauty of both their foliage and their flowers. Sacramento? The Camellia City. The state flower of Alabama? The camellia. The tenth hole at Augusta National Golf Club? It’s named Camellia. And the iconic symbol of Coco Chanel’s haute couture clothing line? The camellia bud.

Another fun fact: Oil from the leaves of certain camellia species is used for cooking by millions of people in China.

Closer to home, there has been a camellia enthusiasts’ organization in Charlotte for decades. According to the current camellia society’s history, an all-male Men’s Camellia Society staged a show about 70 years ago to enable their wives to showcase the blooms that grew in profusion in their gardens in Myers Park, Dilworth, Eastover and elsewhere in southeast Charlotte, but the ladies were not allowed to attend the group’s meetings. Allegedly, the society’s members concluded that “women couldn’t grow camellias,” and kept the group exclusive to men.

In August 1982, 35 dedicated and able camellia growers of both genders created the Charlotte Camellia Society and held its first show that year. A member of the American Camellia Society, the group still maintains a membership of 30-some men and women of all ages, meeting quarterly to share, educate, socialize and promote their passion for the plant.

In a recent project, the Society partnered with Historic Rosedale Plantation to plant a camellia garden at the North Tryon site, including varieties that were first propagated in North Carolina.

This year marks the Society’s thirtieth free public show, an event that is expected to draw 500 or more entries from throughout the region to be judged by nationally accredited experts. Prizes are given in many categories. Of particular interest to visitors: Free advice will be available from growers who specialize in camellias.

“The show is breathtaking,” says Nell Palmer, Society president. “It always comes at the tail end of winter. When you walk in, it’s like walking into spring!”

North Carolina offers an ideal setting for camellias, which prefer warmer climates. They thrive in well-drained soil in areas with part sun and part shade. In selecting a site, experts advise the first-time grower to find a spot where the bush has ample room to spread out, even though it can be pruned.

Camellias, depending upon their variety and the weather, can bloom more than once a year. Some varieties are at their peak blooming period in October and November, some of the reds bloom around Christmas, and some give their best shows at the end of February and into March – just when everything else in the garden is looking barren. Camellias come in a range of colors from white to red, solids and stripes, as well as single and layered blossoms ranging in size from a quarter to a dinner plate.

“Except for magnolias, no flowering plant is more Southern than a camellia,” Palmer says.

In the language of flowers, camellias are said to denote either perfected loveliness or unpretending excellence. Palmer would be the last one to quarrel with these designations. “There has never been an ugly camellia,” she says. More information: The Charlotte Camellia Society’s 30th annual show will take place March 10-11 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day at Blacklion, 10605 Park Road. Admission is free and open to the public.

Growers and other expert gardeners will be hand to provide free advice on the care of camellias. Applications for membership in the Society ($15 per year) will also be available. For more information about the Society, call 704-366-2645.

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