Yesterday I escaped the madness and drove off in the middle of the day with the eclair-making postdoc (and no, I have yet to use my power-of-authority to tell him: 'No weekly homemade eclairs? Then no job!' although it seems like a reasonable thing to do, but the lab does need him...) to take a cake to a friend who is an obsessive grower-of-camellias (and a lover of cake).
I learn something new everytime I visit this place and this man, and this time was no different: how, before, had I missed the fragrance of the winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima)? But there it was - unassuming, beautifully fragrant - a leggy shrub evergreen in this coastal zone (8b), sitting outside of Skip's home, comfortably nestled in between decidious azaleas. I'm guessing that during the summer, you barely even notice that it is there - but yesterday, on a day that brought morning rain and wind, and afternoon sun - in the warm sun the fragrance of this plant was more than welcoming. This morning there are cuttings in my kitchen (it is probably not the best time to try and root them, but I'll still try).
As for the camellias - again, there is always something new to see. It wasn't the best time to see flowers - the recent cold snap damaged many of the ones that had been on the plants, so some of the more sensitive plants were covered in blooms tinged in brown - and in general, due to last year's long drought (one that is continuing, I'm afraid), there weren't as many blooms on the plants as usual. But nonetheless - I was, as always, caught off-guard by the diversity of flowers that I saw while roaming Skip's place. One of the most interesting camellias was a less common one (at least to me), the Camellia lutchuenesis hybrid 'High Fragrance'. I'm not sure where Skip got his, but Camellia Forest carries it, and here's what they say about it:
‘High Fragrance’ (zone 7B) - The genetic material contains only one eighth C. lutchuenesis but the flowers do have a strong pleasant fragrance. Nice peony form flowers are pale pink and bloom in March and April. The plant is a rapid grower with an open habit and light green leaves. (C. japonica ‘Mrs. Bertha Harms’ × [‘Salab’ × ‘Scentuous’])
Regarding it's fragrance, let me just say WOW. The fragrance is reminscent of sweet peas - sweet and strong - and it is the most fragrant camellia that I personally have had the pleasure...of sniffing (there's a nice list of fragrant camellias over at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Camellia Society website). But 'High Fragrance' will be hard to resist - as will this other one that I came across at Camellia Forest, Camellia 'Unryu-tsubaki', that is described on their site as having a 'zig-zag' form that 'makes a 45 degree turn at every node on the stem' resulting in 'bizarre maze of branches'. Once again - WOW.
An aside: Let's be realistic here. As Skip once said to me when I asked him what camellias were his favorite, his response was an honest and simple one: 'The ones that are in bloom.' I'm finding myself intrigued by all of them, and especially whichever one is in front of me blooming - because - once again let's be realistic. What gardener would not be in awe of a plant that bloomed profusely in their gardens from November through April? A plant that was also a drought tolerant evergreen? This morning, while walking the New Wild Dog, I realized that eight different camellias are in bloom in my own garden on this second day of February. For that I am beyond grateful.
But back to learning new things.
I believe that Skip said that 'High Fragrance' was found by Dr. Clifford Parks - a man who has spent much of his life in the wilds of China (and other places) looking for new camellias (and having access to some of the best camellia collections) - of which 'High Fragrance' is one such camellia. Yes, it seems (although I hadn't made the connection before), that this Clifford Parks is the father of David that rambles on here about camellias at Camellia Forest (in Chapel Hill, NC). It seems that while David is busy running the place - that his father is still happily working with Camellias and Magnolias and Primulas. I enjoy making those connections - and you can enjoy reading the chapter 'Pushing the Camellia Hardiness Envelope' online in case you don't have the book The Plant Hunter's Garden: The New Explorers and their Discoveries. And yes, due to a very cold night in North Carolina, the camellias remaining in Clifford Park's Chapel Hill garden became the basis for a program that has contributed greatly to the breeding of cold hardy camellias.
But all of this has me thinking, which probably isn't a surprise - thinking about growing things but growing things with purpose. I often think that it's crazy that all of this gardening obsession (of mine, and of others) isn't harnessed for good. Not that I don't think that growing things merely for the beauty of a single flower or a remarkable whiff of fragrance isn't nobel, but imagine if we were also growing things to maintain genetic stocks (which, I suppose, we are - even if unintentionally) - or to promote crossing/increased diversity. (And I'm not even talking about wildlife advantages). Anyway, it is a Saturday morning and I'm avoiding packing and the sun is shining and perhaps I should contact Camellia Forest and get advice on growing camellias that need to be grown. Does this make sense?
I get distracted so easily.
I'd love to order the 'Collected Species of the Genus Camellia, an Illustrated Outline' by Gao Jiyin, Clifford R. Parks, and Du Yuequiang (in English and Chinese). Here is the book's description on the Camellia Forest website:
One hundred and eighty-eight Camellia species are described in this comprehensive volume with lavish color photos of flowers, foliage and habit. For each species the botanical characteristics, distribution and horticultural merits are discussed in English and Chinese. The species are grouped into sections which helps sort the many species into plants with similar characteristics. The distribution and elevation information helps one think about hardiness and adaptability to different climates. As the Chinese have grown some of these species there is useful information for the garden culture and breeding potential of many species. Of course the features of the plant are described quite completely down to the perules and chromosome number. Only 2500 books were printed and these will not be available in your local bookstore. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to my father for Camellia breeding and research.
Any scientist would love a book on a Genus that gets down to the perules and chromosome number! That is simply dreamy. Even more dreamy is spending one's life wandering around remote places, learning as much as one can about a single Genus - documenting it and preserving it's genetic lineage.
[Wait. I have to think for a minute here. I get to do this! In a different way perhaps, but my lab is having the full genome of a coral pathogen sequenced as I write this, a pathogen originally isolated from the Indian Ocean. We have already generated the peptide library for this organism, and we've started characterizing it's metabolome. We're identifying where it is in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, I can't grow this organism in my garden (nor would it be wise), and it most definitely won't bloom. I fly down to Puerto Rico in a few weeks to perhaps find more of this organism. So I need to express a bit of gratitude here, don't you think?]
See? I get distracted from my distractions.
Back to Skip's camellias. There was one called 'Princess Lavendar' that did, in a certain light, look lavendar. There was a formal white camellia that wasn't really a pure white - the center reflected more of a 'fleshtone' that was somewhat strange but oddly compelling. And as I've said before, I'll let the camellias speak for themselves.