Sisters Florence Crowder and Jama Scivicque stood April 30 in the Denham Springs home where they and all their siblings grew up, looking out over the garden filled with dozens of varieties of camellias.
Their father, J.L. Scivicque, built the house in the late 1940s out of sinker cypress he recovered from the Mississippi River, Crowder said, and the house, which now serves as an overnight retreat center for various groups in the area, is known as the Sisters Nook.
“My mother’s nickname was Nook,” Crowder explained, and the home is where Crowder grew up the beneficiary of her father’s appreciation of camellias. When she and her family moved back to Denham Springs after World War II, she wandered in the beauty of the 100 or so varieties of the plant he collected over the years.
Crowder inherited her father’s garden and fascination with the flower, but as she began trying to identify the varieties of camellias in the garden, she realized she lacked much of his knowledge.
“He knew them all. I lost a lot of information by not paying attention to him,” Crowder said.
The camellias are not in bloom right now, so Crowder uses this time to start new grafts in her garden, which are protected by glass jugs covered with paper bags.
“Because they can’t get too much light until they’re bigger,” she said. Camellias are her favorite, by far, though there are also varieties of azaleas and plenty of other flowers blooming this time of year.
What began as a family project to label the garden soon turned into a quest to preserve what she came to realize was a scarce supply of antique varieties — those that existed before 1900.
Because people stopped asking for them, stores stopped stocking antique varieties. The number of flower gardens dwindled over the years and, since the turn of the 20th century, so did the prevalence of early camellias.
“These varieties are very difficult to find. Some of them can’t be found in the United States anymore,” Crowder told the crowd at the Friends of the Hilltop Arboretum Symposium in January.
In the past decade, Crowder has traveled around the U.S. and Europe in search of both information and seedlings of these hard-to-find varieties, and in many cases she found that nomenclature, itself, was the problem.
“Some varieties were imported to the United States and just renamed when they got here, because we like to rename things,” said Tom Johnson, director of the gardens at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, which has one of the largest collections of camellias in the country.
Johnson was also a speaker at the symposium, and he and Crowder have been sharing information, grafted stock and camellia-hunting trips to France, Italy and Belgium.
Crowder’s dedication will soon benefit Baton Rouge in the form of a dedicated garden space at the LSU Agricultural Center’s Botanic Gardens for the pre-1900 camellia varieties Crowder has collected to date.
“We’ll start off with about 50 plants this year and keep adding plants each year until we’ve reached 200,” she said.
She hopes to include information on the variety, its origin in Asia, and the paths it took through Europe and to the United States.
Crowder is applying for a grant to continue her research into antique camellias.
“If if we lose these camellias, we’ve lost the genetics that brought us what we have today (in newer varieties),” she said.
Hybridizing will continue, but horticulturists still need good starting material.
Meanwhile, Crowder has cultivated and maintained a fascination with the flower, its quirks and its undeniable beauty.
She registered a variety of camellia named for both her father and mother, she said, and a fellow horticulturist in Europe also named a camellia variety after Crowder.
Crowder is active with the Baton Rouge Camellia Society. More information on its work can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/brcamellias.