Will Mangham remembers precisely the moment he fell in love with camellias. It was 50 years ago and he was still living in Baton Rouge when he stopped at a friend’s house one day.
“‘Come see,’ she said. ‘My neighbor’s grafting,’ and I asked, ‘What’s grafting?’” Mangham said. The neighbor was Vi Stone, a woman Mangham describes as the “matriarch of camellias” in Baton Rouge. “She was sitting on the ground grafting camellias and sent me home with two scions. I took them home and grafted them onto some sasanquas I had cut back along the driveway and that was it. When they bloomed, I took one to my wife and said ‘You’re not going to believe what I grew in the backyard.’ That was the start of me knowing I could grow something that flowers as pretty as camellias.”
“Drama Girl” and “Coral Pink Lotus” may have been Mangham’s first, but since then he has immersed himself in collecting japonicas, sasanquas, reticulatas and more. Today, he serves on the board of the American Camellia Society and cultivates about 50 of them in his garden on Bartholomew Street in the Bywater. The garden and its camellia collection would be an accomplishment for anyone, never mind a 90-year-old widower.
“I don’t believe it myself, but I checked my birth certificate and that’s right — I’m a nonagenarian,” he said. “I like to think that I may age but I’m not getting old.”
Mangham lives in a historic sidehall house with Eastlake details, which his daughter renovated for him about 5 years ago after his wife of 50 years, Eda, died.
“We’d gradually moved from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and into an apartment on Burgundy Street that Cam had made for me so I wouldn’t have to drive back to Baton Rouge after day trips to New Orleans on business,” Mangham said, referring to his daughter. “There was no garden here back then — just a 30-foot wide vacant lot.”
Mangham says the sidehall house was unlivable before his daughter, real estate developer Cam Mangham, worked her magic on it. Worse, the vacant lot next door was so overgrown with weeds and cat’s claw that it took a machete and backhoe to tame it. Now, the garden makes a tranquil complement to the house with its side gallery and long deck.
Planting beds circle the large space. In the rear, a few raised vegetable beds stand next to the garden shed where tools and supplies are stored. Two or three planting beds — centered on citrus trees or palms — punctuate the grassy expanse. Camellias interplanted with variegated shrubs across the front fence keep company with magnolias and papayas along the side fence. Here and there are a number of showy hibiscus, still blooming in January.
“I like to grow hibiscus because they bloom in the summer,” said Mangham. “Since camellias bloom in the fall and winter, there is always something to see.”
The weather this year has not been conducive to producing the best camellia blooms, Mangham says — too warm. But the past few days of cooler weather and sunshine have coaxed a few buds to open up and reveal their hidden beauty.
One of them is “Kumagai,” an extraordinary Camellia japonica having three dark red petals surrounding a cluster of tiny pink and white “petaloids” in the center. Another is “Henry E. Huntington,” a Camellia reticulata that bears large blossoms of delicate pink with upright golden stamens in the center. The “common” C. japonica “Pink Perfection” has opened dozens of buds, whereas the rare “Grape Soda” and “Black Magic” are still concealing their bloom inside of ripening buds.
The garden reads a little bit like a diary of Mangham’s travels around the nation, seeing as how he seems to have brought a camellia back from nearly every trip. To keep track of them all, he attaches to each plant a metal tag inscribed on one side with the year he acquired it and its botanical name and on the other with where he found it. Additional markers at the base of each plant display the variety in large, easy to read letters. Oh, and Mangham does all the gardening himself, although he confesses he hires someone to cut the grass.
“I’ve learned something about myself living in Bywater that I never knew when I was a family man raising four children in Baton Rouge: I’m a bohemian,” Mangham said. “I have always loved live entertainment and now I never miss a play in the neighborhood. All my neighbors are artists and the like and most of them walk everywhere. The Art Lofts are just two blocks away — it’s more than wonderful. I’m really just a country boy from Coushatta in north Louisiana, but I’m so excited to have a front row seat to see what’s going on.”