Celebrating a Heritage Southern Flower

Camellias love the South

Photo: Darren Sheriff

Camellias love the South. The pink-, red-, and white-flowering shrubs, which are in the same family as tea plants, thrive in our mild winters and shady summertime tree cover. This weekend, the American Camellia Society’s national show in Charleston will honor the best of the best of them.

“It’s a pretty big honor to have the national society pick your city,” says show chairman Darren Sheriff. “Our little-bity local society has been working on this for a year. We’re excited to show people Charleston’s camellias.”

Charleston’s camellia history is one of the oldest in the country. Before the Civil War, local gardeners collected the plants, focusing on ancient varieties brought over from Asia or cultivated in Europe. Today, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has the largest collection—20,000 plants—of anywhere in America, and includes an extensive heirloom showing. A rainy summer and mild winter (so far) mean the garden is positively exploding in blooms right now.

“The camellias spread over about eight acres and are laid out in the romantic style, meaning there are a lot of curves and no straight paths,” says Miles Beach, the garden’s camellia collection director. “Around each curve in the path be prepared for another surprise.”

If you visit Magnolia or the judging tables at the flower show (plants will be on view from 1 to 9 p.m. this Saturday), look for the Ella Drayton, just one of the hundreds of japonica cultivars originated at Magnolia a century ago. Its perfect formal form shows off a rose color that fades to light pink at the cupped inner petals.

Photo: Darren Sheriff

The Ella Drayton.

Or there’s one of Beach’s favorites, the Alba Plena, which is among the oldest known cultivated camellias (its history traces back to 1797) and was introduced to Charleston around that time. And don’t forget the Miss Charleston, a deep red-and-white splotched bloom, which has its own judging category. Think of it like a local floral beauty pageant and pick your favorite Miss Charleston of the bunch.

Photo: Courtesy of Miles Beach

The Alba Plena.

If you can’t make it to Charleston this weekend, you’ve still got time to enjoy the blossoms. Magnolia Plantation’s camellias bloom from mid-November to April.

Photo: Courtesy of Darren Sheriff

The Miss Charleston.