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Collecting Camellias and Memories

We revisit a classic essay about winter-blooming camellias by the late Ryan Gainey

Editor’s Note: The late garden designer and author Ryan Gainey wrote a regular column for Flower magazine for many years, sharing his remarkable garden knowledge and stories. Here, we preserve his words from 2009, but have added a few new favorite camellia photos. 

a basket arrangement of camellia varieties ranging from pale to dark pink, with solid and variegated petals
A statue of Winter holding ‘Man Size’ camellia in a sterling silver lapel pin. The basket arrangement holds six camellia varieties: ‘Black Magic,’ ‘Scentsation,’ ‘Herme,’ ‘Dr. Tinsley,’ ‘Bernice Boddy,’ and ‘Ville de Nantes.’

Like many of you, I collect. With all my collections, the guiding principle is connection—connection to my personal history, connection to our collective past, connection to nature.

The collection that shines most in winter is that of my camellias. Camellias are a great passion for they connect me to my three garden muses—Mrs. Failes, Mrs. Flowers, and Mrs. Floyd—who taught me to love gardening at home in Hartsville, South Carolina, and they bear witness to my relationship with Atlanta as a garden designer and 30-year resident.

Camellia varieties dance together in petite monogrammed glass vases in a scene styled by Rebecca Gardner of Houses & Parties. Photo by Chia Chong from LIVING FLORAL by Margot Shaw (Rizzoli, 2019).

In Hartsville, I learned to propagate camellias by putting cuttings under a Mason jar and resting them under the eaves of the barn where the rain would keep the soil moist. I bought gallon-sized plants from a nursery in Bishopville, South Carolina, when I was making my first garden. Now I collect from everywhere, looking particularly for camellias with fragrance such as Camellia lutchuensis ‘Koto-No-Kaori’.

When I started my first shop on Peachtree Circle in Atlanta, retired attorney Hugh Shackelford, a man with a great passion for porcelain and camellias, used to bring me cardboard boxes lined with Spanish moss and filled with camellias for me to display in the shop. Now, in my garden with its 75-plus camellia plants, I have one raised by Mr. Shackelford.

camellia blooms floating in a vintage blue dish
Interior designer Marshall Watson enjoys camellia season by filling his home with dishes of blooms from his garden.

I have Camellia japonica ‘William Lanier Hunt’, named for the great author of Southern Gardens, Southern Gardening; Camellia japonica ‘Mrs. Elizabeth Coker’, named for the wife of Dr. Robert R. Coker from my hometown; and Camellia japonica ‘Betty Foy Sanders’. Each winter, they present a reminder of people I knew, and that enriches the nostalgic value of my collection. Mrs. Pat Henry, proprietor of Roses Unlimited in Laurens, South Carolina, brought Camellia lutchuensis ‘Koto-No-Kaori’ to me from a trip to California, another piece of my collection that reminds me of a dear friend.

camellia varieties
While the Camellia sinensis flower may not be as noteworthy as other camellias, the plant itself is very significant to tea-drinkers the world over. Photo Miltos Gikas via Flickr

The unassuming Camellia sinensis gives us tea. My plants came from one of the first gardens I helped make in Atlanta, that of Mr. and Mrs. William Epstein on Peachtree Battle Road. They received their Camellia sinensis from the Thomaston, Georgia, home of Mrs. Alfred Kennedy, née Hightower, and so the connections continue. Perhaps you didn’t know that tea has its southern roots, as well. Outside Charleston, South Carolina, there is a tea plantation growing Camellia sinensis and providing the only American-grown tea on the market, American Classic Tea.

Blooming from December to April, camellias make wonderful evergreen shrubs. They are perfect understory plants, which are always needed in our shaded Atlanta gardens. I prefer to see them grown as understory shrubs, rather than stuck out in full sun. They’ll survive drought in rare form—as green and glossy as they can be—requiring little care with perhaps one or two annual feedings and watering in the worst of dry weather.

camellia varieties
A basket of Camellia japonica ‘Pink Perfection’ look strikingly similar to the Boehm porcelain camellia nestled amongst them.

Which are my favorite varieties? For the moment, it’s the ones with fragrance, particularly Camellia japonica ‘Scentsation’, ‘Herme’, ‘Kramer’s Supreme’, and ‘Spring Sonnet’. There’s Camellia japonica ‘Man Size’, a small, white ruffled-center camellia perfect for a man’s boutonnière. I think ‘Pink Perfection’ is one of the most beautiful camellias in the world, so that would be my choice if I could only have one pink-flowering camellia. But I love ‘Debutante’ as well, bred here in Georgia by the Gerbing family. For red, I would choose ‘Professor C. F. Sargeant’ or ‘Ville de Nantes’. But then there’s ‘Black Magic’…

camellia varieties
‘Bernice Boddy’ proliferates in Ryan Gainey’s garden.

An excellent resource for those who want to know more about camellias is The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias by Stirling Macoboy. I’ve gone through it dozens of times in search of new camellias to include in my collection.

Where do I find my camellias? I order lots of camellia varieties from Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altadena, California. That’s where I got my ‘Betty Foy Sanders’, which has won numerous blue ribbons at the Southeastern Flower Show.

If you want to see thousands of camellia varieties in bloom, travel down to Byron, Georgia, to County Line Wholesale Nursery. They are 10 minutes away from Fort Valley and the home of The American Camellia Society’s Massee Lane Gardens.

An insatiable collector, I am always looking out for another to add to my growing collection. Perhaps I’ll see you along the path.

yuletide camellia
Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ blooms October through Christmastime. Photo by James Gaither

By Ryan Gainey | Photos, except where noted, by Alecia Lauren Photography and Tony Glover

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