Landscape Guy’s trademark is camellias. Sometimes, I’ll come home and find, on my front step, a camellia floating in a paper cup or perched inside a chipped flower pot, and I’ll know, as surely as if he’d left a note, that he was here during the day to check on something.
I’d be surprised if he’s done many gardens that don’t now have camellias in them; mine is certainly no exception. I had a list of plants that I wanted to be sure to include in my garden plan (crocus, lilacs, gardenias, day lilies, Queen Anne’s Lace, black-eyed Susan, lavender, foxgloves, white azaleas), but hadn’t thought of camellias. In his first set of plans, Landscape Guy included Spring and Autumn camellias in the Eastern cottage garden and, mostly because I’ve always loved Camille, I agreed. Since then, I’ve come to love them, too, especially because they are, truly, a plant of my Southern landbase.
Last year, when we got together to exchange Yule gifts, he gave me One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place by Susan Haltom and Roy Brown with lovely pictures by Langdon Clay. Welty, as you know, wrote movingly about the Southern landbase. What I hadn’t realized was what an avid gardener she was and how that influenced her writing. And Welty’s favorite flower was — you guessed it — the camellia.
Eudora noticed the spread of camellias through her home state, with certain towns known for their particular flower. In 1942, she wrote to Diarmuid [Russell], “When you go around the countryside you see that each community of any age has its own variety, grown from seed by some lady once and cuttings given away, and there you will see a great parent bush in some yard and little and middle-sized ones scattered in yards around it, all a camellia known only to one place. I am trying to collect cuttings of the ones that are the nicest and after years go by I’ll have them all in one place — whatever kind of instinct that may be.”
Camellias regained their star status in the 1920s and 1930s, appearing with azaleas in large display gardens throughout the South, including Avery Gardens in Louisiana, Bellingrath Gardens in Alabama, and the historic Magnolia Gardens in South Carolina. The founding in 1945 of the American Camellia Society (ACS) established a national venue for growing and showing. The ACS has created a Camellia Trail, linking noteworthy collections accessible to the public, primarily along the nation’s coastlines (www.camellias-acs.com)
In temperate zones, Camellia japonica blooms outside throughout the winter, with early flowering varieties [such as my Autumn bush] beginning in October and the latest bloomers in April [such as my Spring bush]. February through March is peak bloom time in Mississippi. More than forty camellias growing in the Welty garden today were planted by Eudora and [her mother] Chestina, and many of these plants have reached a commanding stature. Varieties include ‘Lady Clare‘ (which Eudora used as a character name in her novel Delta Wedding), ‘Bernice Boddy,‘ ‘Magnlaiae-flora,‘ ‘Imura,‘ ‘Tricolor,’ ‘White Empress,‘ ‘Elegans‘ (planted in the cemetery in The Optimist’s Daughter), ‘Dr. Tinsely,’ ‘Herme‘ (sent to Diarmuid Russell), and ‘Mathotiana.‘ Because they date to the early part of the twentieth century, this constitutes a[n] historically significant collection.
I’ve been working (I may have mentioned this a time or twenty) on a major brief, spending weekends at the office, working through a bad cold as I put off appointments with beloved friends, neglecting my garden rather badly. I came home this evening to find my Autumn camellia in bloom. Suddenly, my roots re-connected with the my Bit of Earth, I stopped living inside the beautiful Glass Bead Game that is my avocation and my vocation, and I could feel the web that connects me to every Southerner who ever grew and loved a camellia.
They’re such blowsy, wanton flowers. Priestesses and nuns may carry chaste calla lilies, but Camille, the courtesan, was well-named. Camellias are gloriously messy, like a woman’s hair after making love in the afternoon. They’re a lot like the South: too much, out of control, inhibitions lost to the heat, in need of giving too much to everyone. (I used to dislike this aspect of my entertaining, considering it inelegant, overdone, lacking restraint. But I finally realized, “No. It’s just that you’re in the South.”)
What’s blooming just now for you?
Picture by the blogger; if you copy please link back.