Gardening, Christmas in the American South

“October Affair”now blooms in my Garden. It was hybridized by Dr. Clifford Parks of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


I have the tiniest garden at my home here in Nacogdoches, so space is highly valued. Each plant must earn its keep. As a consequence when I was choosing a camellia, I determined to find an exquisite, Christmas blooming Camellia japonica for my little garden. Unfortunately, that little bit of criteria did not narrow my search much. They all seem to be stunners.

To complicate my choice further, camellias are traditional Christmas favorites in the American South. In fact, the South is camellia country. Although camellias are cold hardy, their fall and winter blooms are often killed in cold snaps. Here in East Texas we consider the folks up in Dallas and Fort Worth yankees when it comes to camellias; their winters aren’t mild enough, and bits of mild weather between frosts are a must! (Blast! I’m sorry. I can’t believe I’m writing about the weather! Farmers and gardeners are always boring others about the weather.)

Back to camellias, though. I’m kinda trashy when it comes to culture. I’m a big fan of Gone with the Wind both the movie and the book. Years ago when Alexandra Ripley wrote the book’s sequel Scarlett , I was one of the first in Nacogdoches to read it. I am trashy, indeed. Do you remember when Rhett says to Scarlett, “I’m going to Charleston, back where I belong. I’m through with everything here. I want peace. I want to see if somewhere there isn’t something left in life of charm and grace.” If you’ve read Scarlett and are a true horticulturalist, you know that Rhett Butler does indeed go to Charleston and grows camellias, finding in them charm and grace.

Seeing that I’ve digressed to the subjects of culture, history, horticulture, et elii… years ago I had a friend with whom I spent hours “talkin” gardening. Mr Billy Wall, our town’s former postmaster, had this take on camellias in Nacogdoches:

“It was during World War II and I was stationed in Pineville, Louisiana for training
maneuvers. I had rented a garage apartment from a Mrs. La Croix and saw my first
camellia in her garden. From that moment, I wanted to grow camellias. I came home to Nacogdoches on leave one weekend with a special treat for my wife, Laura Beth. Mrs. La Croix had carefully packed a box full of camellia blooms. When I got home that night, I took Laura Beth out to the John G. Orton’s Cafe with the camellia “Hermes” pinned to her dress.Laura Beth and that camellia created quite a sensation!”

It took camellias 230 years to gain a footing in the “Oldest Town in Texas”, but they did indeed, and we love our camelias. I’m told that alcoholics alway remember their first drink. Plant people are the same way. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, “I remember the first Nandina I ever saw…” or some such. Some gardeners become so obsessed with a certain genus or species of plants they are quite literally addicted. Mr. Wall was a ‘camellia-holic’.

Now to the camellias for my postage-stamp-size garden. I have room for one or maybe two camellias. They, with age, will get large, so I must be careful in my choices. With the help of Dawn Stover at SFASU Gardens, I made my first pick several years ago. Of course, there are now camellias planted all over Nacogdoches, so I can get a first-hand look before I pick. Considering this, I am in absolute agreement with Elizabeth Lawrence who said, “Having little room for so few camellias myself, I spend the season visiting my neighbors.” My goodness, would it not be wonderful to have the famous garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence snooping around in your garden?

While we are ruminating on Southern writers, Eudora Welty loved camellias and was fortunate enough to have room for many in her garden. If you’re into garden history and the American South, look up the book One Writers Garden: Eudora Welty”s Home place by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown. This beautiful book is full of information. By the way, Susan Haltom says, “I’ll bet “White Empress” is now blooming, along with “Lady Clare” and “Pink Perfection”. You can visit Eudora’s garden in Jackson, Mississippi. Why not take up the habit of poking around in other people’s gardens? You can especially hunt for camellias blooming during the Christmas season.

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