Q: I always thought camellias were native to Alabama, but a friend tells me they were imported. What’s the story?

A: Your friend is right. The camellia we so enjoy is not native to our soils, but achieved heirloom or heritage plant status for its enduring history in Mobile, a history it is thought dates to 1838 when the first camellia arrived via Liverpool, according to information published on the Mobile Botanical Gardens website by Bill Ray.

The Asian camellia is a world traveler, exported from Japan to Europe over 300 years ago, and from there to America, where it found a home in the South’s climate and settled in coastal Southern cities from Charleston, South Carolina, to Mobile to New Orleans.

“Heritage” and “heirloom” are unscientific terms, which mean these plants were so successfully transplanted to our area that they are now integral to our culture. The camellia was adopted as our Alabama State Flower, a fact causing some purists to occasionally harrumph.

Camellia japonica may not be a native, but one has only to take a short drive over to Green Nurseries in Fairhope or out to the nurseries of Semmes to see how the camellia became an economic driver while offering us the incomparable beauty of its bloom in so many gardens across our state. Moreover, those blooms lift the gloom of winter when little else is blooming.

While camellias are hardy here, it is said that the rootstock of C. sasanqua is tougher than that of C. japonica, so if you have not had success with the japonica, try a sasanqua camellia next time.

The Mobile Botanical Gardens preserved the history of the camellia in Mobile. On its grounds you can enjoy its camellia collection in the K. Sawada Wintergarden, which was awarded the International Camellia Society’s Garden of Excellence Award. On its website you will find beautiful photographs of camellias and a fine article by Mr. Ray that captures the story of Mobile’s heritage camellias.

The MBG K. Sawada Wintergarden is named for the 20th century Mobile plantsman Kosaku Sawada, whose personal story enriches Mobile’s camellia heritage. Sawada’s story and that of the Mobile Botanical Gardens are recorded in the archives of the American Camellia Society and by local camellia enthusiast, International Camellia Society member and friend to the Botanical Gardens Forrest Latta in his publication “Asian Dream: K. Sawada Wintergarden.”

Knowing the Sawada story is central to a full appreciation of Mobile’s camellia heritage. I grew up near his nursery and attended my mother’s Mimosa Garden Club meetings, where ladies spoke of Sawada’s nursery in tones of reverence. Sawada immigrated from Osaka, Japan, to the United States in 1906, first in a failed venture to grow rice in Texas, then buying land for his Overlook Nursery in Mobile in 1914.

Over the coming decades, he nurtured thousands of seedlings in his meticulous propagation of many award-winning camellia varieties. During World War II, when federal officials came to his home to search, freeze his assets and seize his nursery, local nurserymen with whom he had worked came to his defense and subsequently no action was taken against him, despite his Japanese background. Both Sawada and his Overlook Nursery remained, bringing us decades of further horticultural contributions.

Camellia varieties fall into two main groups: the large leaf C. japonica, which performs best in early morning or dappled sun, and the small leaf C. sasanqua, which needs shade only from the hottest afternoon sun and grows faster than the C. japonica. Camellias do not like wet feet, so be sure to plant them so that a full inch of the root ball is above ground level and mulch up to the root ball with shredded pine bark. Do not bring the mulch up to the trunk.

During the first year after planting in the yard, a regular watering schedule is helpful (an inch weekly if there is no rain, provided the soil drains well, a critical need). After that they do well in dry conditions with little extra irrigation except in drought.

While they flourish in humus-rich, well-drained and loose, slightly acidic soil, they can tolerate heavy, acid clay. Spring and fall feeding encourages a healthy plant with abundant blooms. Camellias can develop scale and fungal leaf spot, but these are seldom fatal. Treat with horticultural oils by package directions.

Each year when summer’s exuberant growth fades and the days shorten to steal our sunlight, I find consolation in the emerging camellia show outside. Few things are more beautiful on a gloomy winter day than a tray of camellia blooms brought in from the garden.

Free upcoming gardening events:

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Jan. 12, 10-11:30 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Winter Sowing and Milkweed, presented by Alice Marty

What: Lunch and Learn
When: Monday, Jan. 23, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Ionix Detox & Herbs for Health, presented by Carol Wattier and A.D. Hale