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Camellias, “the aristocrat of Bellingrath Gardens”

By Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home

Camellia japonica 'Edna Campbell' variegated
Camellia japonica ‘Edna Campbell’ variegated

Bellingrath Gardens is known for its beautiful blooming seasons in spring and summer, but its camellias are the true hallmark of winter.

When Bessie Bellingrath and architect George B. Rogers were developing the Gardens in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they scoured south Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana for unusual azaleas and camellias. The plants arrived via truck and train to fill acre after acre of the Gardens with color.

Camellia japonica 'Chow's Han Ling'
Camellia japonica ‘Chow’s Han Ling’

While the Gardens were developed, Walter Bellingrath was busy with his Coca-Cola franchise and his business interests in First National Bank, the National Mosaic Tile Company, the Lerio Corporation and the Mobile Warehousing Company. In addition, he was active with the Community Chest (later United Fund) and the Mobile Chamber of Commerce.

He was quoted in 1947: “After seeing Bellingrath Gardens, one is convinced that the camellia has no equal in the plant world for its beauty and fitness for the beautification of the home and general landscape use.”

Camellia japonica 'Junior Miss'
Camellia japonica ‘Junior Miss’

Six years later, he estimated to an interviewer that the Gardens contained more than 2,000 mature specimens and more than 400 varieties of camellias.

In 1954, a local nursery owner, Cliff Harris, patented camellia varieties honoring Walter and Bessie Bellingrath.

At the same time, he applied for patents honoring a newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II and local Congressman Frank Boykin.

The Walter D. Bellingrath Camellia
The Walter D. Bellingrath Camellia

In 1956, a year after Mr. Bellingrath’s death, the trustees of Bellingrath Gardens and Home voted to establish a Camellia Arboretum on the western side of Mirror Lake. It was completed in 1958 and covered 8 acres with double rows of camellias, representing hundreds of both rare and new varieties.

Unfortunately, the Arboretum was built in the shade of pines, which ultimately were destroyed by Hurricane Frederic in 1979. Many of the surviving camellias were moved to other areas of the Gardens, where they may still be enjoyed today.

Winter Garden Walk

Enjoy Bellingrath’s beautiful winter blooms at our Winter Garden Walk at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, January 13, led by Executive Director Dr. Bill Barrick, Nursery Manager Chuck Owens and Display Coordinator Barbara Smith.

The event is part of our Winter Wednesdays series in January and February. The Winter Wednesdays sessions are held each week from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. through Feb. 24. Regular Gardens admission is charged, and registration is requested: To register, call 251.973.2217.

Field_GuideNew in the Bellingrath Gift Shop

The third edition of “Camellia Garden Field Guide” by Forrest S. Latta and Brenda C. Litchfield is now available in the Bellingrath Gift Shop.

Latta described the book as a how-to guide about planting and growing camellias and the regions where they grow best. “It’s all a product of the experiences we’ve had here on the Gulf Coast, learning from one another. … It’s sort of an accumulation of the shared knowledge and wisdom about growing camellias,” he said. “It’s got a personal feel to it.”

In the book’s introduction, he writes, “This book is written for two main groups: first-time camellia buyers who seek basic advice on choosing and growing these plants, and new owners of old camellias who seek guidance in restoring, maintaining and enjoying their inherited wealth.”

Want to learn how to wax your camellias? Litchfield explains the process, step by step, in this video:

(The camellia at the top of this post is a camellia japonica, ‘Pink Perfection.’)



This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Hope we have a pretty weekend day so I can come out and photograph the camellias, and anything else you have in bloom.

  2. It was such a joy a few years ago to be able to visit and attempt to identify the camellias. However, on the last trip there last year I couldn’t locate most of the tags. Still, a beautiful place

  3. That one is a japonica variety called “Pink Perfection.” Sorry that it was not identified. I have added the name to the post.

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