March 11, 2007

The lost Camellias of New England

A peppermint colored rose form

Camellias may be iconographic to the south, and grown in southern California, but they also have a rich heritage in New England, where florists grew glasshouses camellias for cut blossoms and corsages that filled the florist shops of Boston, New York City and other northern US cities throughout the long winters of the nineteenth century.

Camellias are sadly absent today in New England, only grown by a handful of enthusiasts who have cold greenhouses, since they are not hardy out-of-doors. Although there are some new cold hardy varieties now available, I can't seem to find anyone who have had luck with them north of southern Connecticut or the tip of Cape Cod, Zone 7, and even then, the fluctuations in spring frost seem to still kill them.

Today, Camellias are a glimpse into the past, when viewed in New England. My first camellia was seen in an old glass and wood greenhouse, once known as Holmes Greenhouses, a series of massive glass greenhouses that once populated man smll towns surrounding Boston with violets, roses, carnations and camellias throughout the turn of the century, Htese trees, with thick smooth trunks and glossy green leaves, we're nearly 18 feet tall, and planted in the ground, against the back of one house. We we're onyl sent out to the trees when an old lady would ocaisionally call and request a camellia corsage, since the floral supply houses no longe carry camellias, this establishment still could deliver a rare blossom. I would drive down in my fathers station wagon to the Holmes Greenhouses, which we're an annex to the more modern houses that I worked in, and pull out my knife and cut a tray full of the precious pink and magenta blossoms. They seemed so special then, as the winter darkness fell early, and the tree's we;re only lit up with by the nearby street lights, with snowflakes falling below the lights. I imagined a day when train cars full of camellias and scented violets filled the stalls of florists in the big east coast cities, long before brigh orange gerbera and neatly dwarfed mums took over.

Of course, in California, especially near Pasadena, Camellias are not such a big deal. There, one of the nations largest grower, Nuccio's Nursery, fills acres with hundreds of clones and species. Whenever I am in the LA area on Business, I always make a trip to Nucci's, where Joe Nuccio is more than happy to pack up a shipment of plants for me to take home. When at Nuccios, eat lunch at the bottom of the hill at Kips (Tacos and Chili Fries to die for) and then head over to the Huntington Gardens for a real treat!

I still enjoy a loove affair with the camellia, and every February, when the vintage camellias and trhe new hybrids bloom, my desk, the house and my friends all enjoy a little vintage blast to the past. There is something so nice about having a living piece of history, blooming along buddleia asiatica, and acacia.

Buddleia asiatica, a tender species, which is scarce, and a winter blooming form of the plant we know as butterfly bush, the Buddleia. This fragrant winter bloomer was a stalwart of the winter cut flower trade in New England during the nineteenth century, in fact, Logee's Greenhouses in Connecticut, known today for it's wide selections of rare plants, began in the 1800's thier business by suppling the flower market with Buddleia asiatica.

Fragrant plants seem to reach thier peak in February and March in the cold greenhouse. Includind Jasmine, Rhododendron fragrantissimum and Citrus blossoms. Basically, your great grandparents' nineteenth century Wedding bouquet if they we're married in the winter.


  1. Very interesting! I had no idea. Beautiful pictures! I always think of camellias as so very southern...nice of think of them being appreciated elsewhere!

  2. Anonymous9:54 AM

    I just came across your site - and loved reading this post about the old New England greenhouse camellias. How fun. I live in the south - where camellias are happy outdoors - but am becoming a bit obsessed with all of the different varieties (and the wonderful stories behind them). This was very interesting (as our your links to your 'secret sources' - some were new to me, so thank you).

  3. I'm headed for the MA Camellia Society Show at Tower Hill Botanic Gardens this afternoon, so I was thinking about the camellia corsages I had as a teenager in the late 1950s. Someone must have been raising them comercially in CT greenhouses as late as that. They can't have been very expensive since teens were purchasing them.
    An older, but not yet OLD lady.

  4. Thanks for your post. I was going to go today also but we had to go buy duck food. I should join the society, since I have about a dozen Camellias in the greenhouse, and I ordered about a dozen more from a trip to Nuccios in CA. They do very well in our cold greenhouse, I notice that they even are doing better when planted in the ground.
    Your comment about Camellia's as corsages reminds me of one of my first jobs in winter, during high school. I worked at a greenhouse in Worcester MA ( Holmes and Shusas), and Paul Shusas had just purchased some old glass greenhouses from Mrs. Holmes, they were full of camellia trees in the back (the houses must have been 100 feet long), and although they we're covered in blossoms, no one ever asked for camellias anymore, which I felt was sad. Perhaps only once or twice, did I remember having to drive the 1 mile or so, to these greenhouses, to see if there were any camellias in bloom for, well, an old lady, who used to ask for them once a year or so. In a concrete raised bed underneath them, also grew Ranunculus and Anemones, which I also felt was very old fashioned. The other big glasshouse contained giant Calla Lillies, also, then, out of favor. What a loss when they were torn down, but those camellias which must have been 16 feet tall, are what inspired me to design my greenhouse to be so tall, so that I could recreate the same sort of experience. I only wish I had oil heat and steam pipes instead of my gas heater (which scares me everytime it comes on!).


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