I left my office early a few days ago, in order to meet with some of my favorite people for a little homebrewed beer and a walk through a wild camellia garden. There was a friend from work, a retired colleague from the University, who as a former Department Chair and Dean was invaluable to me as I struggled through my early years as a faculty member. He's the happiest retired person that I've ever known - enjoying his home on Wadmalaw Sound, training for the bridge run (he's committed to winning his age group!), brewing (and winning national awards for) his beer, and now...wanting to grow camellias. So I told him that I would touch base with Pete and his father (Skip) and that we could meet at Petes Herbs and take a look at Skip's collection. So he drives up in his shiny red truck with no less than a small keg of beer in the back - a 'steam' lager - along with a 'growler' filled with a pale ale (that was pretty amazing). We wandered the farm for awhile, waiting for Pete and his Dad to show up after a trip to Lexington for plastic pots.
Can a person ever have enough camellias? I don't think so. I have 13 camellias in my yard - 12 japonicas and 1 sasanqua. I'd like 6-10 more (the whole obsessed gardener thing) for the back right corner - but I haven't decided exactly which ones. Yesterday helped though: I came across this C. japonica 'Margaret Radcliffe' that is a flower form that I usually like (a double) and was a gorgeous white with tinges of pink on the outer petals. I was also convinced that another older variety, C. japonica 'Professor Charles S. Sargeant' was worth a look - yes, I think it's on my list now.
Standing around Skip's dining room table that looks out over Church Creek, we flipped through an old and well-used collection of camellia books and a small paper notebook of Skip's that contained all of the varieties that he has grown over the past 65 plus years - worn pages with lists in pencil neatly written on both sides of the page. He teased my former colleague, who immediately was drawn to the more formal flower shapes - saying, 'yes, you're a beginner alright' and then teased me by saying 'this one's always backwards, she started out liking the single form first' (like he did) - and Skip and I both agreed that it was 'Pink Perfection' that convinced us that the formal forms were okay. Yesterday I was introduced to several new species of Camellia though - C. vernalis was one that stood out in Skip's 'secret' collection (a sasanqua cross that if I remember correctly can be quite fragrant). Go take a look at Nuccio's Nurseries for some interesting (and rarer) camellias - perhaps you'd like to try 'Nuccio's Gem'? Here's another interesting site, focused on sasanquas....See? See how the list just grows and grows?
The only camellia that was in my yard when I first moved in was C. japonica 'Debutante'. It blooms each year - from just before Thanksgiving into March - and mine now at 15 plus feet overshadows the azaleas and hydrangeas that surround it. I went to the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens website and found this description of 'Debutante'.
Camellia japonica doesn’t produce tea, but each Winter, hundreds of ornate flowers bloom in every shape, size, and shade imaginable, and these ornamental characteristics have made it one of the most beloved plants in the South. The elegant evergreen tree is much revered in Oriental cultures, and Magnolia has shown a similar devotion to the genus. By the late 1970s, nearly 900 varieties were planted at Magnolia – almost 150 of these were newly created at the nursery of Magnolia Gardens. One of the most famous Magnolia introductions is a beautiful pink peony flower originally named the Sarah C. Hastie, after the wife of Magnolia’s owner in the 1920s. Today the plant is called by the catchy name of Debutante and is one of the most popular camellias grown in the world.
Last night I spent the evening celebrating the winter solstice with friends - a bonfire, a dark sky, music filtering through a pine forest - fine food and drink - time spent with gardening friends that find the longest night the official start of the gardening season. Yes, shorter nights are on the way - bringing subtle changes in the garden that by mid- to late-January will be apparent to all. Light is on the way!