BY JEANNE K. CALLEN
The Greenville Standard
On Friday, Feb. 5, Margo Fort loaded two large tubs of camellia blooms carefully nestled in cotton batting into her car, and headed to Brookhaven Miss. for the 68th Annual Camellia Show presented by the Brookhaven Camellia Society, held Saturday, Feb. 6.
This was the first camellia competition for Fort who walked away with four first place blue stars and four second place red stars for her blooms, as well as trophy plates for: 1. Best Tray of Three same variety, 2. Court of Honor, a third place win for Best Bloom of Show in her division, 3. Runner-up for Best Pink Bloom of show in the unknown category.
Fort won an impressive total of 11 accolades for her camellias out of a total of 813 blooms submitted by growers at the show.
For Margo Fort, preservation, restoration and antiques have been her way of life since birth.
Because of her expertise and knowledge of historic houses, Fort, a Nashville, Tenn. native, fell in love with the Henry Beeland Stanley Home on Commerce Street in Greenville, and in 2017 she purchased the house and made The Camellia City her home.
Restoring the home has been an arduous, exciting and expensive project but it’s always been an adventure.
Fort said, “This old house has a story to tell and each layer we peel back is a chapter of its history.”
But, the most exciting history may be in the yard.
Two years ago Fort and her son peeled back layers of an overgrown jungle in her back and side yards to reveal one of the most beautiful treasures of all, camellias.
Fort believes there were once seven or eight separate gardens in the small yard but now there are four distinct gardens of mostly camellias and also azaleas.
There are 35 living camellias in the gardens and evidence there were once many more.
The species japonica is one of the most common genus of camellia found in Fort’s garden, but she also has two sasanqua, another popular species.
Camellias can only be identified by their blooms, and blooming season is from late fall through March. Usually peak bloom is in January, but some may bloom as late as April or May.
Fort has had help identifying blooms from Greenvillians, including historian Barbara Middleton, who also has provided a wealth of information about Fort’s home and local history and the history of camellias, Mary Dearing, and Mary Crenshaw Bates, a resident of Fort Deposit.
Other camellia enthusiasts have helped from far and wide including Forrest Latta, Leonard Teel and Jane Davis, all from Mobile.
Included also were John Grimm, president of the New Orleans Camellia Society, and he has a camellia preserve on the North Shore called Camellia Heaven, Florence Crowder from Louisiana, and Sara Sealy a master gardener from S.C.
- Glen Stanley, one of the former owners of Fort’s home was a camellia enthusiast and planted many if not most of the camellias found in the garden today.
Stanley, who was the long time editor of The Greenville Advocate, adopted The Camellia City logo to appear on the heading of the newspaper around 1938, and according to Middleton, “He wrote about Camellia’s every week.”
The previous year, 1937, he held the first camellia show in his back yard.
Shortly after Greenville became known as The Camellia City, the camellia became the state flower of Alabama in 1959.
Many of the camellias in Fort’s yard are believed to have been purchased by Stanley from Overlook Nursery in Mobile, owned by Kosaku Sawada, known as K. Sawada.
- Sawada was born in Japan in 1882 and migrated to the U.S. with a group to plant citrus trees in Texas.
He migrated east, landing in Grand Bay and then later Mobile.
He established Overlook Nursery that overlooked Mobile Bay.
There he grew grafts of existing camellias in the area that had been imported in the late 1800’s from Japan.
In 1915, he married Nobu Yoshioka, and as part of her dowry she brought with her to Alabama, 500 camellia seeds from Japan.
These seeds were planted in 1917 and the from these plantings five species were identified as “outstanding variety” during the 1929-1930 blooming season and one of those camellias, “Imura” won Fort the Best Tray of Three, and the single bloom Imura won third place honor for Best Bloom in Show in her division.
Her division was “Unprotected” which means the plants were not grown in a nursery or in a protected environment.
Matter of fact, the many camellias in her yard, several of which may be edging toward or surpassing 90 years old, have survived for years on their own, neglected, without even being fertilized and yet they still provide hundreds of big beautiful blooms all on their own year after year.
At one time Greenville also held an annual Camellia Show put on by all four garden clubs: The Greenville Garden Club, The Sasanqua Garden Club, The Azalea Garden Club and The Greenville Men’s Camellia Society.
Mr. Shirley Roberson is the last living member of The Greenville Men’s Camellia Society. The only club still in existence today is The Sasanqua Garden Club.
In an article written by Stanley, he noted that the 1950 Camellia Show had 5,000 attendees.
It’s not clear when the annual shows stopped, but the most recent shows were held in 2002 at City Hall and then in 2009 at the Henry Beeland Stanley House to commemorate 50 years of the camellia as Alabama’s state flower.
Fort is looking forward to learning more history about her garden and learning to identify the blooming camellias.
Fort understands the camellias are beautiful treasures that are layers in the chapters of history of the Henry Beeland Stanley Fort House at 218 Commerce Street.