By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
At first, they thought they would have only about 200-300 camellia bushes. “But our involvement got way out of hand once we started growing and showing,” laughed Carol Selph, who with her husband Jerry, talked about their mutual love of, and addiction to, camellias. They now have over 3000 bushes.
Camellias, the roses of winter, the jewels of winter, the official state flower of Alabama, and members of the tea family, originated in China and traveled via ships to Italy, France and Spain in the 1740’s. In 1832, there is a record of a shipment of camellias from France arriving in Hoboken, New Jersey. By the mid 1800s they were making their way into the South via a Philadelphia florist who bought land in Charleston, S.C., and began growing and selling camellias to the Southern landed gentry.
Soon afterwards, they were known in every major southern city. The beautiful camellias of the Hardee Plantation, the historic home of Florida’s 23rd governor, Cary Augustus Hardee (serving 1921 to 1925), arrived by train from New Orleans in the 1860s.
At first, they graced church grounds and plantations almost exclusively, and there was just the single bloom variety, in either red or white.
Now there are over 30,000 different registered varieties, and they can be found anywhere, in private yards and public parks, in formal gardens, in nurseries and garden center and the Selphs grow about 1,100 of those varieties on their land – japonicas, sasanquas, reticulatas, single and double blooms, in all colors of red, white, pink, and everything in between. “These are not your grandmother’s camellias,” said Carol.
Jerry, who grew up in Cherry Lake, spent about 25 years selling fertilizer and other chemicals in Ft. Pierce before retiring and moving back close to home with his wife Carol. They now live about halfway between Cherry Lake and Quitman, Ga., where they took up the hobby that soon became their passion.
Camellias bloom primarily in winter months and are beautiful year round because of their leathery leaves – dark green and usually glossy on top and much paler underneath. They grow into hardy, woody tree-like shrubs.
In the winter, their big, showy flowers are literally showstoppers, and the Selphs constantly prune, dead-head, and de-bud their bushes to produce even bigger blooms. At times, they remove as many as half the buds on a tree in order to get bigger flowers.
However, it’s not only the big flowers that judges love. The ‘Pink Perfection’ a small, delicate pink blossom, still wins a lot of shows, too.
“Judges look for the flower that speaks to them,” said Carol, whether it’s the diminutive ‘Pink Perfection’ or its bigger cousins, the ‘Frank Houser’ or the ‘Leila Gibson.’ There is even a flower called the ‘Henry Lunsford,’ named after an uncle of Mary Ellen Greene of Greene Publishing. Lunsford, a camellia enthusiast, cultivated and registered that variety in the mid-1980s.
People from all walks of life come under the camellias’ charm. Doctors, lawyers, college professors, judges…anyone can become passionate growers of the nearly endless varieties, searching for that perfect blossom that wins the hearts of judges in shows.
For more information on camellias and the dates and times of nearby camellia shows, visit the American Camellia Society website at www.camellias-acs.com/.