Dr. Brenda Litchfield | Mobile is a camellia growing mecca, with hundreds of varieties on display including (from top) Little Babe, Pink Perfection, Betty Sheffield and Seafoam.

By Vaughan Drinkard, Mobile County Master Gardener

One of my earliest memories involves camellias. In 1950 my grandfather, Cliff Harris (Pop to me), purchased Robert O. Rubel Jr.’s Longview Nursery and its entire camellia stock. Rubel had become known by that time as one of the foremost experts and innovators of camellia culture. Pop asked my dad, Blanding Drinkard, to manage Longview, and that’s where Dad’s love affair with camellias began.

Our yard was a virtual camellia paradise. Camellia plants of multiple species and varieties were everywhere. While I did not appreciate or admire camellias then as I do now, as a small boy I remember how green and lush the camellia plants were, how special their wood appeared and how beautiful their large blooms presented.             

In 1954, at the age of 3, I vaguely remember Pop, with much pomp and circumstance, shipping his recently developed and patented camellia Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to England’s new queen at Windsor Castle. I’ve recently learned the progeny from those plants are still in the Queen’s gardens.

In the same year I have a photograph of my grandfather presenting his newly named camellia Walter D. Bellingrath to Mr. Bellingrath at his now world-famous gardens. The little boy waving at the crowd in the picture is yours truly. Mr. Bell once wrote, after spending a day in his wonderful gardens, that he was “convinced the camellia has no equal in the plant world for its beauty and fitness for the beautification of the home and landscape.” My love and appreciation for camellias started long ago.                       

From the ancient temple gardens of China and Japan, through the ornate conservatories of 18th century Europe, to the stately plantations of our own 19th century South, the camellia has always been a pampered and cherished plant, a living symbol of elegance and beauty. It is believed by many, and certainly among camellia lovers, that the camellia is the most beautiful, valuable and simplest of evergreen flowering shrubs. Few plants offer such a wide variety in flower forms and colors, such handsome foliage and appearance, an extensive blooming season and complete adaptation to our shade gardens.

The genus Camellia has several hundred species, some of which include: C. sinensis, from which tea is derived; C. oleifera, from which an oil is derived; and the very decorative species of C. japonica, C. reticulata and C. sasanqua. There are thousands of different cultivars of the C. japonica; one is named Vaughan Drinkard.

A notable reason to grow camellias in our gardens in Mobile is that Alabama is the Camellia State, having declared the camellia the state flower in 1959. This year, we will celebrate the 60th year of the camellia being our state flower. Additionally, we will recognize and celebrate Alabama’s 200th anniversary of statehood.

In February, the American Camellia Society will hold its annual national convention in Mobile. Camellia enthusiasts from all over the world will converge on our city for this event. The convention will include a special 60th anniversary Camellia show, local garden tours, Mardi Gras parades and delicious seafood. Mobile, a longtime camellia-growing mecca, will be the center of the camellia world during this time.

Whether you have a passing interest in camellias or are a longtime camellia enthusiast, I invite you to join us at the upcoming American Camellia Society gathering. This will be a great time to become involved in a wonderful pastime with the Queen of Winter, and an opportunity to experience the flower, which has greatly impacted my family for generations.

Vaughan Drinkard is a Mobile County Master Gardener, a member of the Alabama Camellia Society and American Camellia Society, and the caretaker of Cornerstone Gardens and Arboretum, a private garden open to the public at 1066 Government St. in Mobile (cornerstonegarden.org).


What: 2019 American Camellia Society Convention and National Camellia Show
When: Feb. 15-19
Where: Mobile Convention Center and Renaissance Riverview Hotel
Registration Deadline: Jan. 15; full registration $300 or per-day rate $125. For information: AlabamaCamelliaSociety.org or call Chuck Shirk, 251-422-0398

What: Mobile Master Gardeners monthly meeting
When: Thursday, Jan. 10, 10-11:45 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Ag Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: What Plants Not to Buy
Speaker: John Olive, director, Auburn University Ornamental Horticulture Research Center

What: Mobile County Master Gardeners 2019
Spring Seminar
When: Monday, Feb. 18 (5:30-8:30 p.m.)
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
Speaker: Vince Dooley, legendary Georgia football coach, author and Mobile native, shares his passions and experience with gardening — growing camellias, hydrangeas, Japanese maples, roses and much more.
Topic: Football and Flowers
5:30 p.m.: Heavy hors d’oeuvres, wine, silent auction
6:30 p.m.: Coach Dooley’s presentation
7:30 p.m.: Dessert, book signing, silent auction
Cost: $40 nonrefundable advance reservations required
Deadline to register: Feb. 8. Send checks payable to MCMG to 2221 Dogwood Court N., Mobile, AL 36693. Call 251-209-6425 for credit card purchase.

More information: Call 251-574-8445 or email jda0002@aces.edu.