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Camellias, Mr. Bellingrath’s favorite flower

By Sally Pearsall Ericson
Director of Marketing and Public Relations

In the 1920s and 1930s, when Bessie Bellingrath wanted to beautify the Fowl River property that we know today as Bellingrath Gardens and Home, she knew that two plants were essential to add color and beauty – azaleas and camellias. She preferred larger, established specimens, and she and her architect, George B. Rogers, found them all over the southeast and had them delivered to the property.

Everyone loves azaleas, but camellias, which are so well-suited to Southern gardens, are sometimes overlooked in the modern-day landscaping world. That’s a shame, because these lovely plants are cold-hardy in our region, nicely shaped and require very little maintenance once they’re established. They can live for many years. Camellias are also versatile; they can be used as hedges, as garden accents, and in containers. Here on the Gulf Coast, many specimens bloom for months at a time. At Bellingrath, we enjoy blooms from a variety of sasanquas and japonicas from November to April.

If you’d like to add camellias to your garden, here are some good resources for finding tried and true varieties:

  1. Laura Kay’s Nursery & Florist, 5600 Cottage Hill Road, Mobile, AL 36609. Phone:  (251) 666-1510.  
  2. Mobile Botanical Gardens, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile, AL 36608. (Sales are seasonal.) Phone: (251) 342-0555.
  3. Stokley Garden Express, 1451 Government Street, Mobile, AL 36604. Phone: (251) 461-6434.
  4. Old Tyme Feed and Garden Supply, 19580 S. Greeno Road, Fairhope, AL 36532. Phone: (251) 928-1156. Website: https://www.oldtymefeed.com/
  5. Mail-order sources include: Camellia Forest Nursery, https://camforest.com/ ; and Nuccio’s Nurseries, https://www.nucciosnurseries.com/index.php/camellias

Tips for planting camellias:

  1. It’s essential to plant it with the root ball slightly higher than ground level, to make sure that the roots will have good drainage.
  2. Water it regularly for the first year, and give it a good soaking whenever the soil seems overly dry.
  3. The best time to plant camellias is either in the spring, or in late fall and early winter.
  4. Camellias do best in dappled sunlight, under a canopy of tall trees.
  5. Newly planted or transplanted camellias should only be lightly fertilized during the first year. Use a slow-release, balanced fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants, or cottonseed meal.
  6. Add fresh mulch in spring and fall, but not too close to the stems or trunk.
  7. Avoid planting a camellia too close to trees with aggressive surface roots, such as magnolias, oaks and crape myrtles; their roots can invade the camellia’s root zone.
  8. Camellias don’t require frequent pruning, and you should especially avoid pruning after spring, or you’ll likely remove next year’s buds.

Trouble-shooting:

  1. Wilted or discolored leaves: This may indicate a root problem. The roots may be too dry, or overly waterlogged, or may have come in contact with a toxic chemical.
  2. Stunted growth: Have the soil tested to find out if there is an imbalance in the soil minerals or pH level, which may limit the roots’ ability to absorb nutrients for growth.
  3. Disease control: If the foliage wilts in one part of the plant, the cause may be a fungal disease known as “die back.” Try to remove all of the infected wood to prevent it from spreading throughout the entire plant, and treat cut surfaces with a fungicide. Put the infected wood in a plastic bag and discard it to keep the fungal spores from spreading in your garden. Clean your pruning shears with 10% bleach solution between each cut.

The Bellingrath Camellia Legacy

We know that Walter Bellingrath was a camellia aficionado. In a 1947 article, Mr. Bellingrath wrote, “The wonderful forms and colors of Camellia japonica have no equal in the plant world for their beauty and fitness for general landscape work.” He noted that Bellingrath Gardens had more than 2,000 mature specimens of Camellia japonica, which he described as “undoubtedly one of the finest collections of specimen plants to be found anywhere. Over 400 varieties are embraced in this collection.”

After Mrs. Bellingrath died in 1943, Mr. Bellingrath continued their plans for their beloved Gardens until his own death in 1955. His favorite flower was showcased in the Camellia Parterre, which featured 100 specimen plants and was staffed by employees whose job was to remove all spent blooms daily and who were trained to personally identify each variety for visitors, because Mr. Bellingrath disliked the idea of signs marring the natural scene.

The Camellia Arboretum in 1964.

Mr. Bellingrath died two days after his 86th birthday, on August 8, 1955. In the later years of his life, he had often expressed a desire for more and more camellia varieties. After his death, some of his friends had the idea to honor his memory by adding a new camellia arboretum adjoining the original Gardens.

They selected a seven-acre wooded area with good pine tree cover, in the area on the side of Mirror Lake behind the Summer House. In 1957-58, the site was planted with 400 field-grown specimens ranging in age from 5 to 10 years. The gardeners also planted 400 grafting stocks of ‘Professor Sargent’; our guests will notice numerous specimens of this variety at Bellingrath today.

The arboretum eventually featured 1,200 plants of about 900 varieties, situated along grass-covered trails, which were over-seeded with rye grass in winter. Unfortunately, in 1979, the entire garden suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Frederic. The combination of high winds and falling trees wiped out hundreds of camellias and azaleas, including the arboretum. The gardens were closed for six months during the clean-up, which required extensive replanting and rearranging. Many of the arboretum’s prized camellias were salvaged and moved into the main garden. The old ones that survived were nursed back to health by the Gardens’ late manager, Pat Ryan, a leader in the camellia world.

Sources: Camellia Garden Field Guide, Third Edition, by Forrest S. Latta and Brenda C. Litchfield; Bellingrath Gardens and Home archives; The Camellia Club of Mobile