BY BRUCE BRANUM
The Greenville Standard
Several early blooming varieties of Camellia japonica bushes have started to flower in Greenville, the Camellia City.
A long history, with efforts by Butler County residents, surrounds how Greenville came to be known as The Camellia City, how the Camellia japonica Linnaeus came to be the State Flower of Alabama and the camellia eventually have a day in Alabama proclaimed in its honor.
About the genus Camellia, the Alabama Cooperative Extension publication “The Culture of Camellias” states, “The name camellia was given to the genus by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, who developed the binomial system of nomenclature used to classify plants.
“The pronunciation of camellia as either ca-mee-lia or ca-mell-ia is acceptable. The natural home of the camellia is an area encompassing Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and various islands and countries from Viet Nam to Burma.
“More than 200 species of camellias have been identified with most of these being distributed throughout southern China.
“The most economically important species of the genus is Camellia sinensis, the common tea plant. Camellia japonica is the most widely grown ornamental species of the genus.
“More than 20,000 varieties or cultivars of various species and hybrids generally grown by amateur camellia hobbyists in the English-speaking world have been described.
“Flower colors, shapes, and bloom sizes show remarkable diversity. Seedlings of crosses with Camellia reticulata and other species have produced extensive variations in flower and leaf sizes and growth habits. Camellia sasanqua is another widely grown species.”
The camellia has been revered and cultivated for thousands of years in Southeast Asia for its tea-producing leaves and breathtaking flowers.
It was tea that first brought Camellia sinesis to the rest of the world in the 16th and 17 centuries and to North America. Importers first began with the C. sinensis and along with those plants came some of the ornamental varieties.
In the early 1800’s, the camellia found its way to Alabama where gardeners and flower lovers alike began planting them in earnest. Records indicate Butler County residents were ordering camellia plants in the 1850’s.
It was in from the late 1930’s to the 1960’s when the fervor over camellias reached its high point in Butler County and across the state.
Camellia shows were prominent in several cities across Alabama and garnered more attention than sporting events.
In February 1937, Ben Arthur Davis, a native of Crenshaw County and garden editor of Holland’s magazine, spoke to the Greenville Garden Club, which is now defunct, and noted he had never seen so many large camellia plants in one town.
Thereafter, the club adopted the Camellia japonica as its official flower and on Feb. 3, 1938, J. Glenn Stanley, editor of The Greenville Advocate, adopted the slogan, Greenville, The Camellia City, for its masthead.
Soon after that, city officials and civic and businesses also began using the slogan.
Alabama originally named the goldenrod as the state flower on Sept. 6, 1927. Camellia growers from Butler and other counties were not pleased that a weed was the official state flower.
The first bill to replace the goldenrod with the camellia was sponsored by State Senator Jimmy Faulkner of Baldwin County in 1949, but it failed.
A historical marker located at the base of stairs leading to the Alabama Confederate Memorial and the Alabama State Capitol north entrance states in part, “In 1959, camellia growers in Butler County argued that the goldenrod was a weed and convinced State Representative Folsom LaMont Glass of Greenville (The Camellia City) to introduce a bill naming the Camellia as the official state flower.”
On Aug. 26, 1959, the measure passed the Legislature and was signed by Governor John Patterson. His wife, Mary Joe McGowin Patterson, who had ties to Butler County, was also influential in making the camellia the state flower.
Mary Joe is reported to have said, after the bill passed and her husband signed the bill, “Good, I can go home tonight!”
Because of the numerous types of camellia, the 1999 Legislature specified that the Camellia japonica L. was the official state flower. On the same day, the Oak-leaf Hydrangea, native to the state, was named the state wildflower.”
In 2014, the Legislature proclaimed Jan. 7 of each year as Alabama’s “Camellia Day.” The date was picked to coincide with the start of C. japonica’s prime blooming season.
If you are thinking of adding camellias to your landscape, here are some tips to ensure they thrive and provide the best color.
For best growth and flowering, plant camellias in fall and early winter, with partial shade and in an area protected from strong winds. They grow well under pines but don’t compete well with hardwood tree roots.
Camellias can be grown in a variety of soil types, but for best results they need an acidic soil (pH 5.0-6.5) that’s well aerated and high in organic matter.
They also need adequate water when they are first planted and during growth periods. Once established, they tolerate drought better.
Camellias can also be reproduced from seed, cuttings, grafting and air layering.
Their blooms range in color from white to pink to deep red; some are variegated. Camellia flower forms include single, semi-double, anemone, peony (loose and full), rose form double and formal double.
To learn more about growing camellias, visit the American Camellia Association website (americancamellias.com), join a local camellia club or check out the Alabama Cooperative Extension publication “The Culture of Camellias” at aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0202/ANR-0202.pdf.