In the Garden

Tabasco’s Other Treasures

On Avery Island in Louisiana, curious camellia hunters unravel generations of botanical mysteries

Photo: Denny Culbert

Camellia japonica Elegans blooming in Jungle Gardens on Avery Island.

Florence Crowder knows they’re in here somewhere. Somewhere among the thousands of camellias on Avery Island, Louisiana—also the home base of the hot sauce giant Tabasco—have got to be the two flowers she’s been seeking for a decade. The Duchess Decazes, which billows in mostly pink petals with creamy edges, and the Punctata Boutourlin, which honors its namesake soldier with crimson-streaked white blooms. 

Crowder leans on the luggage cart she wheeled into this wild floral heaven and looks over her binders of photographs of thousands of rare camellias. “Since my father’s death, my fascination with camellias has controlled my world,” she says. “I bring blooms home and line them up on the table and look through my reference books.” She plays this matching game each winter and spring as the camellias bloom on Avery, some popping in December, some opening as late as March.

photo: Denny Culbert
Scarlet lichen.

When Crowder, who lives two hours northeast in Denham Springs, was a little girl, her father collected plants from all over the South, and one of his favorite spots was Avery Island, at the nursery and the Jungle Gardens that E. A. McIlhenny opened to the public alongside his family’s Tabasco empire in 1935. Although Crowder has been able to locate the sources for most of what her father grew in his garden near Baton Rouge, she can’t find the origins for these two. She has a hunch that the parent plants are right here, among the more than nine hundred varieties and thousands of individual camellias spread across Jungle Gardens’ 170 semitropical acres of meandering azalea-lined paths, now-tangled nursery rows, a massive bamboo forest, and stands of old-growth cypress around a lake humming with roosting snowy egrets.

photo: Denny Culbert
The Camellia japonica Tricolo.

Since 2010, Crowder and a small group of enthusiasts have been putting a numbered aluminum tag on each camellia plant, observing blooms, and trying to match each with the name and description of one of the more than thirty thousand varieties of camellias, which grow natively in Asia and are cultivated throughout the world. The team has discovered two treasured heirlooms that trace to the mid-1800s in Belgium and France: the Bicolor de la Reine, and the Madame Cachet, which are both most likely living only here and in a few gardens in Europe. Of all the paths plants take—naturally spreading across land, and crisscrossing oceans at the hands of collectors—hundreds of camellia routes have intersected on Avery, an island of ancient minerals nestled among bayous where McIlhenny stashed his own collection of rare Asian trees and shrubs.

Garrie Landry, McIlhenny Co.’s botanist on Avery Island, is continually updating his map of Jungle Gardens to point out special plants and places for visitors to pause. He, along with company president and CEO Harold Osborn III (E. A.’s great-grandson), who hired him, welcomes enthusiasts to come explore Jungle Gardens—especially those who can help make sense of the camellias. Many of the plants’ identities were lost by way of innocent mishap. 

photo: Denny Culbert
Garrie Landry, McIlhenny Co.’s botanist.

“Best I have heard it,” Landry says, “McIlhenny was having a group of camellias planted. He told the workers, don’t lose those tags. When they finished, not knowing he meant to keep them with the plants, they brought the tags to him.” Landry laughs. That’s just one lost-boy camellia story in this floral neverland—McIlhenny allowed people to take cuttings, sold shrubs, and watched visitors carry pots of Louisiana soil back to their home gardens the world over. “We had an international camellia society come a few years ago, and the most hysterical ones were the Australians,” Landry says. “They said that many of the camellias growing in Australia came directly from Avery Island. They were  like kids in a candy store, finding the camellias they knew that first grew here in the 1930s.”

photo: Denny Culbert
A camellia the garden hopes to identify.

Florence Crowder may have a shorter commute home to her camellia patch, but her excitement is just as resonant. So is Osborn’s for the continuing plant projects evolving under his watch—and the long-asked family questions they’re answering. “Some of E. A.’s children had a camellia variety named after them, and somewhere there’s a picture of each,” he says. “There are some named after my grandmother and her two sisters—Rosemary, Polly, and Leila—and they’re still probably out there somewhere.” Perhaps Rosemary will be found perching near the Duchess Decazes, or Polly mingling with Punctata Boutourlin, or some other entirely mysterious flower will show itself soon, ready to hear its name again.