Camellias take center stage Sunday at the LSU AgCenter’s Hammond Research Station when the center hosts its annual “Camellia Stroll,” co-sponsored with the Tangipahoa Parish Master Gardeners Association.
Regina Bracy, resident coordinator of the Hammond Research Station, said the camellias on site were planted by superintendent Walter F. “Hody” Wilson over almost 30 years, from the mid-1930s to late-1950s.
“Today, we have nearly 700 plants, some as tall as 15 feet,” she said. “About 450 have been identified, but there are hundreds more that have not. That’s because many are one-of-a-kind because of the cross-breeding that Hody Wilson did.”
Bracy said the garden is a preserve of sorts that represents the diversity of camellia varieties, many of which can no longer be found in commercial nurseries.
“Over time, many have been lost to the trade, so it is especially important that we take care of what we have here,” she said.
Thanks to the Tangipahoa Parish Master Gardeners Association, the Research Station has been able to protect and rejuvenate its holdings. The Master Gardeners group launched an effort in 1998 to clear out vines and other intruders that were competing with the camellias for resources and have maintained the camellia gardens since.
“The worst damage that the garden experienced was from Hurricane Katrina because so many pine trees fell and destroyed a number of the camellia bushes,” Bracy said. “Camellias depend on the shade that the pine trees provided, so losing the shade also impacted their health.”
Unusually low temperatures for the past two winters, likewise, have not been kind to the camellia plants, Bracy added.
“But now we have planted new pines that should be able to provide the needed shade in a few more years,” she said. “That will help. And when the camellias are finished blooming this year in late spring, we will remove dead wood and fertilize, which is important to the plants.”
Jack Grimm, a member of the Tangipahoa Parish Master Gardeners Association, has made the conservation of hard-to-find camellias his life’s passion, one he shared with his late wife, Stephanie.
“I call my place ‘Camellia Heaven’ because I have 4,700 varieties of camellias in various stages of maturity,” Grimm said. “As styles and habitats have changed, so many varieties have become impossible to find. Old nurseries have been bulldozed to make way for something new. People rip out the camellias in their yards when they buy a place and put in something else — all that means there are fewer and fewer varieties that survive.”
Grimm and his colleagues with the Master Gardeners group will be on hand at the Camellia Stroll to sell camellias that they have propagated and to answer questions as visitors guide themselves through the 2-acre tract of land.
“We will have probably about 200 plants for sale, most of them for about $30 each or four for $100,” Grimm said. “Some will be ones that you can find in nurseries, but many of them will be ones that you can’t. I can guarantee you will never find Alaska Belle or Starlet at a plant nursery, but we will have them.”
A passion for purple will be a highlight of this year’s camellia sale, according to Grimm, because of the sensation they created at last year’s annual event.
“We’ll have ‘Purple Dawn,’ which is easy to find in nurseries, but also ‘Purple Swirl’ and ‘Purple Girl,’ two varieties that are not,” Grimm said. “The most interesting might be William Penn.”
According to Grimm, William Penn blooms red and white for its first five or six years of life. But something magical happens once its roots have matured and reach down deep enough to encounter the layer of red clay that underlies the soil.
“That’s when the red switches to purple and it starts blooming purple and white,” he explained.
Walter F. “Hody” Wilson was the superintendent of the Research Station from 1936 to 1975. He was an internationally known camellia breeder who crossed many varieties, resulting in many hybrids. Some of the plants he created were released publicly, but he deemed others unworthy.
“That’s why there are so many one-of-a-kind specimens in the garden,” explained Bracy. “If you think about how long ago they were planted, you realize what resilient plants they are. They won’t live forever, but they have stood the test of time for many decades now.”