March 2, 2013

A 184 Year-Old Camellia Exhibition

Camellias from all over Massachusetts are benched on a table awaiting to be judged at the 184th Annual Camellia Exhibition sponsored by the Massachusetts Camellia Society at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA.
If you read this blog often, it will come with no surprise that I love camellias, in fact, with each passing year, I find myself becoming more in love with this ancient Asian tree which was once so popular and common in old New England greenhouses, in old estate conservatories, 19th century florist glass houses  and in institutional collections. Camellias may seem rather un -exciting if you live in London, or in southern states and the Pacific rim, but for the rest of us, they are rarely seen, a lost legacy of times-gone by, relics from a past when cold greenhouses and unheated conservatories provided the perfect conditions for these Chinese, Korean and Japanese trees.

This weekend I had the pleasure to be invited to be a judge at the 184th annual Camellia Exhibition held by the Massachusetts Camellia Society - the show, one of the oldest flower shows in the country ( they still fight with Philadelphia on which one is actually the oldest!) is held this year at the beautiful Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA, near my home. If you live in New England, come visit tomorrow - the show continues on Sunday, March 3rd until 5:00 PM.

In New England, finding camellias can be challenging. If you want plants to try, you must order them from one of the few national nurseries who grow them (Nuccio's Nursery in Pasadena, perhaps the finest, and Camellia Forest Nursery in North Carolina come to mind). There was a time when a camellia corsage was commonplace, even I remember in the 1970's old wooded greenhouses in my home town of Worcester, MA with tall camellia trees planted in the ground, that would provide flowers for the few older women who would call to request them. Today, they are all lost, and if you are curious to see these stunning flowers, perhaps the only place to see them would be at a camellia exhibition, such as this one, or, if you visit a private collection.

Fast advice - camellias can't survive in average homes, they demand cold winter temps just above freezing and cool, buoyant air. If you have an unheated porch that remains constantly above freezing, or if you have a cold ( 35-40º greenhouse) then you will have success. You can try them in an un heated garage with a window, or a cold bedroom that you don't use. They are relatively care free in such environments which is why they were once so popular until modern heating systems made their indoor culture impossible.

My entries for the show, picked fresh this morning as I make my way to the truck at 7:30 am. Once at the show, they will be floated in little dishes of water, and benched into categories based on form and type. A camellia show is both educational ( the best way to choose varieties), and beautiful.

 I have to honest, I've resisted entering or even attending the camellia show at Tower Hill each year, only because I felt (wrongly) that it might be underwhelming, my own prejudice as I have my own collection of camellias in the greenhouse here, and felt that there would be so few entries that it would not be worth my time to bother to enter. Boy, was I wrong. I was surprised ( i.e. shocked) at how crowded the show was, (clearly - lots of people want to visit a botanic garden in the middle of winter- duh!), and, I was super impressed with the number of entries. I predict that the camellia will be the next peony, for I never seen so much interest from people about any flower show plant or flower. Many people were buying plants, and even more were taking photos.

Mass. Camellia Society member Frank Streeter labels his entries at the show. Camellias are transported as loose blossoms, and they need to be carefully sorted and placed in their proper group and class before being judged. Petals must be clean, and free from any blemishes, and their form must meet strict standards for each type.

The new winter garden, at Tower Hill. Magnificent architecture and new plantings keep this new jewel in New England on many visitors must-see list.

Camellias come in 6 forms, some are single, double, rose-formed or peony formed. Others have tight bosses of stamens like the Higo type and others have small, slender blossoms.

My fellow judge Taylor Johnston,  a horticulturist from the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston showed me these larger specimens in the Limonaia ( like an orangerie) at Tower Hill. These all came from the collection which once was housed at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, but which now are housed at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

At this camellia exhibition, both plants and flowers are staged, and are entered for competition. These displays line a hallway at the garden, where the public can stroll and view the many forms and types.

  A bronze antique vessel holds a floating display of camellia blossoms.

We voted this beauty BEST IN SHOW.

We judges agreed that these two rarer flowers which were nearly black entered by Glen Lord should have won an award, but he entered them in a class marked NOT FOR JUDGING. The variety? Night Rider. Must have! Check out those red stamens, and Glen informs me that the foliage is reddish too.

A white formal rose camellia, a form that everyone loves because of its symmetry. Comparing these more symmetrical flower types with the more poofy reticulata's makes camellia judging a bit like a dog show. It can be hard to not be subjective.

A massive single higo form

These are the winners, removed to a side table so that we could judge them against each other. All blue ribbon winners, this is like the last class at Westminster Kennel Club - one of these will become the Best In Show. ( you've already seen it, above, but check out the huge reticulata in the bowl at the top of the image - wow).

On a dull, overcast cold winters day, there is nothing like a bright and cheerful camellia show to lift spirits.


  1. So much beauty! I wonder if they would not do fine even in a unheated glassed-in porch or garage window that does freeze occasionally. In my hometown in southwestern Germany camellias are fairly common - and reliably flowering garden - shrubs and take considerable periods of freezing every winter.

  2. Agreed that Night Rider is magnificent. However, I think I see one or two of my favourites, Nuccio's Pearl. To me, it is the most beautiful!

  3. I don't know how you do it. Every time I read your post about some plant(s) that normally I wouldn't realize were interesting. African violets? Camellias? Very entertaining reading! Love it!

  4. Got me again! First it's African Violets now Camellias! I've never even heard of one where I'm from. Nevada, the high desert... I love this blog..


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