If C. Allen Favrot is correct, the lovely Nina Avery camellia that I planted last winter doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of making it.
“It might do OK for the first two or three years,” he told me. “But once the roots grow out into that New Orleans soil, that’ll kill it over time. The soil on the north shore is perfect -- it's acidic. But in New Orleans, it's alkaline. There’s only so much amending you can do.”
Rarely has anyone been quite so frank with me about the future of one of my plants, or anything, come to think of it. Yet Favrot has more than earned the right. At 92, he has been an aficionado of camellias for the past 70 years.
Partially because of his knowledge of the plant and partially because of his decades-long commitment to both north shore and New Orleans camellia clubs, Favrot will serve as the honorary chair of the American Camellia Society’s annual convention in Covington Saturday. A highlight of the convention is the camellia show, open to the public from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Southern Hotel (428 E. Boston St.).
“There won’t be as many blooms this year as in years past because of the freezes this week, but there should be plenty of spectacular blooms from growers who have green houses,” Favrot said. “The camellia bushes won’t die in the freeze, but the blooms will be ruined.”
Native to south and eastern Asia, the camellia was introduced to Western Europe in 1739. There are now hundreds of cultivars. Despite the north shore's chilly weather, the soil is just right for the favorite flowering shrub.
"If New Orleans had the soil that Folsom and Covington have, there'd be camellias everywhere, and they'd be gigantic camellias," he said.
Favrot is a lifelong resident of the area, known for his philanthropic endeavors which earned him the the Times-Picayune Loving Cup in 2002. His interest in camellias goes back many years, though, to when he was only 20-something, he said.
“I grew up in New Orleans, but we have so many houses in Covington – 14 total – that the area is called Favrotville. I spent plenty of time there in the summers, and right next door was the property of Sigmund Katz, one of the foremost camellia authorities in the world. He had thousands of varieties,” Favrot said.
Katz was a regular speaker at camellia conventions and had a wicked sense of humor. In the early 1950s, he wrote a report for “The Camellia Review” that concluded, “Probably the greatest menace to all Camellias in all areas… is inexpert advice. The next greatest menace is advice of any kind and, next to that, people who write on the subject.”
Maybe so, but I’m more than willing to trust Favrot when he warns me about the fate of my Nina Avery (Camellia japonica).
“I lived on Iona Street in Old Metairie before Hurricane Katrina and I was determined to grow camellias there. So I dug a trench and brought in truckloads of soil from the north shore. I had 60 or 70 camellias there – until my garden flooded in the storm,” he said. “It did them in.”
Hmm...truckloads of soil? Digging trenches? The more we talked the more worried I became about my plant. So I asked Favrot - what if I were to amend the soil around it?
“It’s already too late,” he said. “I’ve seen it too many times.”
When I explained that my Purple Dawn seemed to be doing just fine and is probably 20 years old, Favrot dispensed a morsel of hope when he told me that, of all varieties, it is likely the one best suited to the acid poor soil of New Orleans.
“Like any other camellia, it likes part sun and part shade, but never full sun or full shade,” Favrot told me. “A lot of the camellias left on my place in Covington are dying because they lost their shade canopy in Katrina – the storm knocked down all the pine trees.”
That wasn’t all that was lost to the high winds of the storm – Favrot said he had measured a 42-foot-tall Kumagai camellia in Beechwood Gardens that was simply blown over by the wind.
When it comes to favorites, I expected Favrot to name an exotic type I’d never heard of. But he surprised me.
“It’s Alba Plena, no question about it,” he said. “It’s an elegant double white camellia with a beautiful bloom.” I learned that it’s one of the most popular and has been cultivated since 1797.
Finally, I asked about species other than japonica. Reticulata, he said, “have been coming on strong for the last 10 years or so.”
And what of C. sasanqua, those lovely and plentiful small blossoms that cover shrubs from October through January? Favrot agreed that they look “nice,” but explained that they fail his personal camellia litmus test: “You can’t pick one and give it to a lady to wear because the blossom won’t hold up.”
American Camellia Society Show
1 to 4 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 6)
428 E. Boston St., Covington