by Ray Linville
Have you wished during gray winter days that azaleas and other spring flowers were ready to bloom?
After visiting Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, I was pleasantly surprised how camellias in bloom brightened its landscape in the winter.
Originally from Asia, camellias were first brought into the United States in 1797. In a few years, they were thriving in the gardens of the Carolinas.
Camellias, picturesque in the ancient temple gardens of China and Japan, have a long heritage in Asia. After being brought into America, the camellia continued as it had elsewhere as a symbol of elegance and aristocracy, which created the misconception that it’s more delicate and difficult to grow than it is. However, the American Camellia Society says that camellias are easier to grow than azaleas and gardenias.
I know that’s true. After planting several camellias, I’ve done little more for more than a decade than a little pruning and watering. They will thrive with a minimalist approach for a long time. In fact, some camellias in Japan live to be over 500 years old.
An evergreen shrub that is cold-tolerant, its blossoms show up just as my yard needs color. A camellia is planted next to each corner of the house, so that regardless of which way I’m looking this month, I see a plant in bloom.
Camellias bloom well before azaleas even think that it’s time to awaken. In fact, our area can enjoy the blooms of camellias for several months. Bloom colors range from white to many shades of pink and red in our area (and yellow flowers can be found in South China and Vietnam). Flower sizes range from two inches in diameter up to five.
Camellias thrive not only in our landscape but also in our popular culture, including literature and sports. For example, the camellia flower is used in “To Kill a Mockingbird” to represent courage. Author Harper Lee plays to the mystique of the camellia when she describes a white camellia, the favorite flower of one character, as it is touched by someone else.
Writers also often personify the camellia as Francis Duggan does in his poem “Like a Beautiful Camellia,” when he compares his love to the flower: “So bright and fresh and pretty in the wintry wind and rain.”
In sports, the camellia plays prominently during the Masters Tournament at Augusta National each April. The 10th hole, historically the course’s hardest, is named Camellia, and its difficulty prepares the pros for the next three holes, known as “Amen Corner.”
You still have time to enjoy the blooms of winter. Visit the 70th annual show of the Fayetteville Camellia Club, which last year featured 452 blooms. Free and open to the public, it will be held at the Ramada Plaza in the Bordeaux Convention Center from 1 to 4 p.m. on March 5-6.
In addition, plant a camellia and enjoy its flowers as they brighten the gray days next winter.
Retired from the N.C. Community College System, Linville is a contributing writer for the N.C. Folklife Institute and conducts programs on Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.