February 29, 2016

A Weekend at Americas Oldest Flower Show

An entrants camellias await being groomed and set out on the benches at America's oldest flower show, the 187th Camellia Show held by the Massachusetts Camellia Society held this past weekend at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

It's as if Downton Abbey meets the Philadelphia Flower Show, or as if a greenhouse from the nineteenth century suddenly came to life again in the middle of winter. This weekend, I participated in the Massachusetts Camellia Society's 187th annual show - which happens to hold the honor of the oldest continuous flower show in the United States. So special and rare today, at least in the North, camellias continue to capture the imagination of flower lovers, and maybe, just maybe, they are making a comeback, even if only a handful of people can raise them today.

Some very nice Semi Double camellias, waiting to be benched.

If you live in California or in the south, it may seem rather unimpressive, the idea of a camellia show, but in the north where camellias are not hardy, they are today, a very special thing, as few people can grow this somewhat tender Asian tree unless they have the luxury of a cold greenhouse. I would would go a step further and say that not only do very few people raise camellias anymore, but most people north of Washington D.C. have even seen a camellia, let alone touched one or smelled one (some can be very fragrant, although most have no scent.).

My tray of camellias, which I picked that morning, make their way into the exhibition hall at last Saturday's 187th annual Camellia Show hosted by the Massachusetts Camellia Society, held at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA.

In many way these are living antiques in the north, which is sad, since a hundred years ago they were as common at florist's greenhouses and in estate greenhouses as were carnations or chrysanthemums in the winter. Native to China, Korea and Japan, camellias do prefer cool to cold winter temperatures, but since they are late winter blooming and have glossy, evergreen foliage, they cannot survive hard freezes below the mid 20's without damage. In a cool or cold greenhouse they thrive in the cool, damp sunny environment, spending the summer out of doors when they do most of their growth, and then wintering over under glass - there is hardly a more perfect winter blooming tree.

In a home, they are practically impossible to grow, unless one owns an old house with an unheated bedroom, which preferably is drafty with bright sunshine. A few people can raised them on unheated porches which are glassed-in, or in conservatories, but generally, camellias are known as rather low maintenance, long lived greenhouse trees which prefer to be planted in the ground under glass, or in large tubs where they can remain for decades.

Exhibitors entering flowers take great care, from picking them in the morning early, to selecting only the most perfect, with no damage on the petals, no pollen stains, and good leaf arrangement. These here are from the Lyman Estate greenhouses in Waltham, MA, another old collection in the Boston area.

At this weekends show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden there were a few hundred blossoms on display. I think that guests never realized that there were only about six exhibitors, which gives you an idea of how endangered the New England camellia collections are. I was asked to be a judge again (I judged two years ago) and my good friend Glen Lord was also asked - we are both camellia growers, but not very serious collectors, at least yet. Camellia enthusiasts are a rare breed in the North today.

Most of my plants came from Nuccio's Nursery in California. When I travel to LA on business, I always try to make a side trip to this landmark Pasadena nursery. I have them pack plants up in crates which I bring back on the plane. I prefer to pick out the varieties I want (usually in early February) when they have them displayed on wooden tables. Camellia shows display flowers in small dishes or in bowls, in much the same way we home growers display camellias in our homes - in plates, or floating in a bowl. I've come to appreciate a February holiday such as St Valentines Day or Presidents day as represented by a bowl of camellias. Surely, any 19th century person would find such a display a very proper solution, and an appropriate one for an parlor or dining table in the era.

The Formal Rose or Formal Double form is perhaps my favorite, often the petals of these forms are so perfectly arranged in lovely fibonacci symmetry. I an imagine Mrs. Lincoln with one of these as a corsage, can't you? 

Some white anemone forms which never made it onto the display bench. This is how one exhibitor brought his flowers to the show. They are picked in morning early, and last out of water for a few hours before being groomed and set onto the benches.

Pale yellow forms are being introduced. This one is the color of heavy cream, but considered close to yellow. The variety is a Japanese one 'Ki-No-Senritsu'. 

Extra flowers are often not tossed into the trash, but arranged on a tray to fill some of the tables. These are some of mine, which I did not exhibit.

More Formal Doubles arranged and set on the bench awaiting judging. 

Flowers can be entered as singles or as a triple entry. This plate of 'Charles Sargent' each showed some very nice variegation, and nice arrangement of petals. 

This  tree won Best in Show in the potted plant category.

The flower on the right made it to the Best In Show table to be considered as Best in Show, while the anemone form flower on the left called 'Lipstick', which I entered, came in second in the anemone flowered class.

Can you guess who this man in in the middle with the beard? That's Roger Swain from the PBS show Victory Garden. He joined us at the judges luncheon, and entertained us with stories. He admitted to me that he's a huge blog fan, and I was very flattered! More excited than when I met J.J. Abrams!

Just before judging, the final touches are made. Extra flowers that never made it to the bench, are removed, and all labels are checked for accuracy.

By noon, the crowds arrived. The line to enter the botanic garden was long, and the parking lot was full. Not bad, for a camellia show!

I was shocked to have one of my flowers win Best in Show! I stepped out of judging at this point, it just didn't seem right. I was very honored.

There were many entries which I felt should have won, like this bicolored semi double Higo type.

Both Glen Lord and I fell for this ruffled one. It's named 'Mooching', and it's a Camellia reticulata, a different species from most of the doubles, which are bred from C. japonica.

I love the boss of stamens on this bright red Higo type. Most of the potted trees in the displays are part of the Tower Hill collection, which came from the collection which was once housed at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Talk about an important collection with provenance.


  1. Anonymous12:48 PM

    I love your blog and all your tallent! I live about 20 miles from you and Tower Hill. It is quite a gem any season.

  2. Camellias are very beautiful. We tend to take them for granted here. I'd no idea that they were once popular florist flowers but did know that they were grown in glass houses, even in areas where they are hardy as when they were first introduced, they were thought to be more tender than they are. Thank you for sharing your beautiful blooms and the show!

  3. Every time I read your blog I want a greenhouse. I will never manage to grow such beauties in a ranch house! And what a pleasure to meet Roger Swain. Victory Garden was never the same without him.

  4. How beautiful! I had hoped to go to the show, but we've been too busy with traveling. Camellias are a flower I really miss from living down South in North Carolina. Everyone grew camellias there, and after the blooms the ground underneath would be strewn with a little carpet of colored petals which I thought was so pretty. The show looks like such a great one, and so lovely to see all those blooms in winter!

  5. Some absolutely beautiful camellias in your pictures. I would love to see them named :-)

  6. It is so beautiful. I love to see the beauty of flower so much. It makes me enjoy.


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