A census for camellias

AVERY ISLAND, Louisiana – This island, 225 kilometres west of New Orleans, is best known for the Tabasco peppers that have been grown here since the 1860s by the McIlhenny family for their famous Louisiana hot sauce. But the 5-kilometre-long island, surrounded by bayous, is also home to some 450 varieties of camellias, many rare enough to be considered endangered.

To identify these plants before they are lost forever, a handful of horticulturists, botanists and gardening aficionados converged on Avery Island on an overcast but mild day in January. Swatting aside beards of Spanish moss dangling from huge live oaks, the camellia sleuths were giddy over the brilliance of the blooms they discovered, with colours ranging from pure white to light pink to deep crimson, as well as marbled and striped varieties. Camellias, which have become more popular in recent years, have peony-like flowers that blossom in winter.

“There’s a Professor Sargent, that red one over there,” said Bart Brechter, the curator of gardens at Bayou Bend, a decorative-arts house museum affiliated with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “It’s the strangest thing, I can’t remember people’s names but I can remember the names of plants.”

Brechter, like the other camellia experts assembled, was invited to Avery Island by the descendants of Edward Avery McIlhenny (1872-1949), who, besides running the Tabasco business that his father founded in 1868, cultivated and hybridized camellias. McIlhenny, who was known as EA, set aside 69 hectares on the island to indulge his hobby, calling the expanse Jungle Gardens and opening it to the public in 1935.

The beauty of his camellias, which were all labelled back then, attracted crowds and proved irresistible to some. “Over the years, visitors to Jungle Gardens took cuttings of camellias, and walked off with the tags that told us what we had,” said Leigh Simmons, 57, McIlhenny’s great-granddaughter and the overseer of the re labelling effort.

Simmons has spent much of her time writing locally produced plays, like one about the Louisiana Purchase called “Whose Land Is It Anyway?” But she also has a botany degree from Auburn University, a useful background for the camellia identification project, which is expected to take several years.

Like many of McIlhenny’s descendants, Simmons lives on Avery Island, which remains family owned.

“We’re a commune,” said Cathy Thomason, 61, Simmons’s cousin, who is also involved in the camellia project. Thomason, who keeps a bottle of Tabasco in an engraved sterling silver sleeve on her dining table, became interested in camellias while participating in garden clubs in New Orleans, where she lived until she and her husband, Chuck, retired to Avery Island in 2003.

“We all come back eventually,” she said.

The two cousins enlisted the help of Brechter because McIlhenny had supplied many of the camellias now growing at Bayou Bend. Another key adviser on the project is Florence Crowder, a former nursery owner from Denham Springs, Louisiana, and a founder of the Great Gardens of America Preservation Alliance, established in 2008 to preserve rare and disappearing species of azaleas and camellias.

Camellias are native to the Far East but were exported in the 18th century to Europe, where they were grown in the greenhouses of royalty and aristocracy in France, England, Spain and Germany. In the United States, the heyday of camellias arrived in the 1930s and ‘40s, when wealthy and notable Americans such as McIlhenny, Henry du Pont, William Randolph Hearst, Pearl Buck and Eudora Welty began breeding and cultivating them.

With more than 17,000 varieties of camellias known today, identifying the ones on Avery Island will be difficult. During the January gathering, the identification process essentially involved Brechter, Crowder and assorted other volunteers crowding around a blossom and debating what it was. Nomenclature books, which are volumes that list botanical terms, were brandished, and occasionally heated arguments ensued.

At one point, listening to the bickering, Thomason dryly drawled, “I sometimes think whoever talks the loudest wins.” But usually, the disagreements ended with a notation of the plant’s location and the snapping of a picture of the bloom to send to other experts for their opinions.

“We’re all committed to this project because these plants are a part of our history,” Crowder said. “Many of the camellias are named after real people or places or events, so if you figure out the names of your camellias you can figure out your past.” There are camellias named for figures like George S. Patton, Pope John XXIII and Angela Lansbury, and, because it was considered a measure of social standing in the South to have a camellia named for you, there are countless varieties that honour former debutantes.

Some nurseries, like Cam Too Camellias in Greensboro, North Carolina, have seen a doubling of camellia sales over the last five years. Tommy Alden, the owner of Country Line Nursery in Byron, Georgia, which sells camellias nationwide primarily to retail nurseries and landscapers, added, “Camellia sales have been the one bright spot in an otherwise down market.”

Besides nostalgia for grandma’s garden, experts say, the attraction of camellias is that they can bloom from November through March, when other plants are bare, and they are drought-tolerant and require very little maintenance. Indeed, the camellias on Avery Island have survived a half-century of benign neglect since McIlhenny’s death, not to mention multiple hurricanes.

And, said Alden, “There are also a lot of new varieties, some with blooms as large as dinner plates and others that will survive the cold.”

Indeed, camellias have traditionally fared poorly in hard freezes, growing well mostly in the South and on the West Coast. But now landscapers in the Northeast and Midwest are incorporating the new cold-hardy camellias into their projects.

“We’re getting a lot of oohs and ahhs over the camellias,” said Mark Butler, owner of Butler Landscaping in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, whose favorite varieties are Spring Promise, which has coral flowers, and April Snow, with stark white blooms.

Also popular are the sinensis varieties of camellias, the source of green and black tea. “People dry the leaves in the sun or in a 200-degree oven and then brew it,” said Cindy Watson, an owner of Cam Too Camellias. “We’ve seen a jump in sales I think because green tea is in everything now, even shampoos and lotions.”

Camellias are also in high demand among Asian immigrants in the United States and Canada, who often give the red blooming varieties as gifts. “We ship a lot to New York and California for Chinese New Year’s,” Watson said.