A Southern Focus

Where to See the South’s Best Camellias

By CJ LotzDecember 20, 2016

A bit of gardening lore: The first camellias to enter the colonies in the mid-1700s were tea plants. Although commercial tea plantations near Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, struggled to take off amidst import competition, botanical relatives of the plants—showy sasanquas and japonicas—did take root. 

An Ella Drayton Camellia at Magnolia Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Darren Sheriff)

Today, camellias that bloom in hundreds of flowered varieties are treasured heirloom plants, and the “Camellia Belt” spans from the Eastern edge of Texas to the Atlantic coast and as far north as Virginia. Some species bloom as early as September and as late as April, but peak season generally dates from late winter to the beginning of spring. Brave the chilly temperatures and meander through some of the South’s top spots to see the “winter rose” this year. 


Mobile Botanical Gardens

Thanks to the warm, humid climate of the Gulf of Mexico region, the gardens in this area have long been known for their winter camellia explosions. But perhaps more credit is due to the legendary Japanese-born plantsman Kosaku Sawada, who planted camellias here in the early 1900s from a chest of seeds sent from Japan as his wife’s dowry. See the original home of some of the country’s most popular cultivars at the five-acre WinterGarden.

Kosaku Sawada tends his flowers in the 1940s; an October Magic; Shishigashira shrubs. (Photos courtesy Mobile Botanical Gardens)

Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs

Ramble the quarter-mile Camellia Trail that winds past a thorough primer of the shrub’s varietals, including higo, sasanqua, japonica, and reticulata. A “floating” bridge crosses a hidden ravine covered in white azaleas to link the camellia trail to the Japanese-inspired Garden of the Pine Wind.

Blooming shrubs along the Camellia Trail. (Photos courtesy Garvan Woodland Gardens)

Leu Gardens in Orlando

Mr. Harry P. Leu and his wife, Mary Jane, traveled the world in search of rare camellias, eventually planting more than 1,500 specimens of Camellia japonica and sasanqua on their property. They deeded the home and gardens to the city of Orlando in 1961 so the public could soak up this Sunshine State botanical bonanza. You’ll see plenty of classics like Pink Perfection, but seek out the Herme variety with white-bordered and pink-streaked petals—it was a favorite of the writer and hobby-gardener Eudora Welty.

An Herme bloom; a trio of Pink Perfection. (Photos courtesy Leu Gardens)

Massee Lane Gardens in Fort Valley

Consider this America’s home base for camellias: In 1966, gardener David Strother donated his 160-acre estate to the American Camellia Society to serve as its headquarters. Today, more than 1,000 varieties can be found here, and a two-acre “Seedling Forest” showcases new cultivars. 

Purple Passion; Night Rider; Lady Vansittart. (Photos courtesy Massee Lane Gardens)

LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens in Baton Rouge 

In 2002, LSU received a beautiful gift—a rare assortment of camellias left from the private Louisiana garden of flower enthusiasts Violet and Hank Stone. Today, nearly 500 cuttings propagated from their plants, along with historic older camellias, dot the forest floor beneath the live oaks and crape myrtles of the 420-acre Burden Center grounds.

A camellia from the Stone Collection. (Photo courtesy LSU AgCenter)

South Carolina
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston 

The “winter roses” at Magnolia carry a serious pedigree. Before the Civil War, the estate held the most extensive planting in the country, with the one-time owner Rev. John Grimke-Drayton writing in 1854, “I have discovered that there were a hundred and twenty double varieties there. How many singles, semi-doubles, peony forms and others, I do not pretend to know. I can only describe their number as Legion.” Today, 20,000 camellias are on display throughout the winter and spring, with a focus on “ancient” (pre-1900) varieties.

An Eleanor Hagood. (Photo courtesy Magnolia Plantation)

Norfolk Botanical Garden

This collection of camellias includes some 1,700 plants of more than 1,000 varieties—one of the largest groupings in the United States. Wander through the Hofheimer Camellia Garden to be surrounded by blooms in white, pink, red, and yellow, or circle Mirror Lake to see more camellias dotting the banks that Works Progress Administration workers first cleared for azalea plantings in 1939—don’t worry, you can see plenty of those original flowers, as well.

Three japonica varieties: Mabel Bryan; Masterpiece Pink; Punkin. (Photos courtesy Norfolk Botanical Garden)

What are some of your favorite Southern camellia gardens? Tell us in the comments below.