Wild Green Yonder – Camellias charm Southern gardens

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Article by Renee Frith – March 12, 2016
Curator of Woody Plants
Link to Virginian Pilot Story

Most everyone in the South has encountered, seen a photo or heard a story that involves camellias. Camellia is the state flower of my birthplace, Alabama. My granny is quoted as saying, “Any respectable Southern garden must have camellias.”


I’m still unclear of her qualifications for making such a bold statement, but there is no denying that camellia has a striking flower that turns heads. After college I moved to Tampa, Fla., bought a house and started enhancing the yard. During the design phase, Granny’s voice echoed between my ears:”Camellias! Camellias!” I selected the shadiest location under some sand pines and chose a specimen, Camellia japonica ‘Gigantea’. None of my neighbors had a camellia, so in January/February (when it finally gets cool in Florida), my ‘Gigantea’ would throw off gorgeous show-stopping red-and-white blooms. My neighbors would swoon.

Camellia-sasanqua-'Shi-shi-Gashira'

I feel back at home here in Hampton Roads. I’ve been reunited with all the amazing camellias I remember from my youth. C. japonica and C. sasanqua are the two most recognized species in the genus Camellia. There are 33 additional species represented at the Garden. Some of my favorites are C. japonica ‘Willard Scott’, C. japonica ‘Ville de Nantes’ and C. japonica ‘Mrs. Lyman Clarke’. Mrs. Clarke was a Norfolk gardener who registered this cultivar in the 1930s. The first registered ‘M
rs. Lyman Clarke’ resides at NBG.

NBG shares a long-running friendship and partnership with the Virginia Camellia Society (www.genserva.com/vcs). The Hofheimer Camellia Garden was created in memory of Alan J. Hofheimer, one of the founding members of the VCS. HCG started with 160 cultivars, and today holds close to 800.

Today, the Virginia Camellia Society will host its spring flower show and sale from noon to 4 p.m. in Rose Hall at the Garden. This show isn’t just about looking at pretty blooms – this is about competition. Competitors have pampered these prize-winning blooms for months. The event also has gorgeous C. japonica and C. sasanqua cultivars for sale. Join the VCS, and you will receive a free air layer (already potted and rooted). VCS hosts numerous workshops and fellowships throughout the year. I’m proud to be a member.

There’s more to camellia than just impressive show flowers. The Garden’s Hofheimer Camellia Garden hosts a species bed that includes Camellia sinensis among many others. Green tea is made from the tender young leaves of C. sinensis.

You can find more of these head turners in NBG’s Hofheimer Camellia Garden and Old Camellia Garden, which encompass over 4 acres and hosts most of our camellia collection. We also have large pockets of camellia in Shady Woods and Mirror Lake. Check out Mirror Lake to see our Virginia State Champion Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. Be sure to use Garden Explorer on your smartphone. This web-based app will allow you to look up any plant by name and will show you its location in the Garden. Also, throughout the year, NBG hosts classes on camellia, including how to make tea. Keep a lookout on our website for a full list of options: norfolkbotanicalgarden.org/education/adult- education.

I look forward to seeing you in the Garden.

3 Camellia japonica 'Gigantea' 4 Camellia japonica 'Taylor's Perfection' 6 Camellia sasanqua 'Cleopatra'