My first flower memory goes back to my March birthday party when I was 4. As my friends arrived, for some reason now lost to me, I hid under my bed. My mother searched the house and finally spotted a black patent leather Mary Jane shoe protruding from the dust ruffle. “Come out of there this minute!” she commanded. She dragged me to the party. Presents were stacked on the dining room table, and my friends were drinking cups of punch. In the center on a silver stand was the cake my mother had made. Three layers tall with shiny white frosting and rosettes of pale green, it was surrounded by soft-pink flowers with shiny leaves—camellias. Since then, seeing any pink camellia takes me that far back.
When I bought my 1806 North Carolina farmhouse, I discovered that 90-year-old camellias ruled the backyard, a dozen old mother bushes around 20 feet tall, each the circumference of a car. One produces solid blossoms next to others striped like ribbon candy. Who can get far enough back into the bush to see if there are two trunks? What luck—all the camellias are shades of pink, from faint blush to watermelon, their luminosity striking in the winter dusk.
I learned from inherited garden notebooks that when Hurricane Fran hit in 1996, this property lost 17 giant trees, taking away much of the camellias’ protective shade. They still bloom brilliantly but tarnish quickly, gracing the ground with a tapestry of fallen flowers. I contemplate pruning after the blooming season, but the shrubs’ interiors are jungle dense. All summer, instead of seeing flowers, I watch the exits of birds, the ones who sing “bistro, bistro” and the ones who answer “T-shirt, T-shirt.”
In my image of the primeval South, I see sun-pierced woods thick with longleaf pines, laurel “slicks,” towering magnolias, and a proliferation of camellias among giant ferns. But this isn’t a true picture. Although camellias are so deeply identified with Southern gardens as to seem indigenous, they’re latecomers (1700s) of Asian origin. Could this be true: One called ‘Pine Cone Scale,’ planted in the 14th century during the Ming dynasty, survives in Yunnan, China, at the Panlong Monastery? This casts my own near-centenarian plants as infants.
WATCH: The Grumpy Gardener's Guide to Camellias
All camellias belong to the Theaceae family, and the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), with its small white flowers, is used for commercial tea production. I will pay attention when my camellias are blooming to see if I can detect a whiff of tea scent. There are over 3,000 named kinds—some resemble dahlias, carnations, roses, even gardenias. What choices!
I planted 10 new bushes in a sheltered bed across the lawn. I chose ‘Eleanor Hagood’ and ‘Debutante’ because they reminded me of the camellias I played under as a child. To ward off hungry deer, I asked my hairstylist for a sack of clippings and stuffed net bags to drape from the branches. I also scattered garlic. Within a couple of weeks, they had stripped the leaves and gnawed the stems to the pith. The shrubs now survive as stragglers, lopsided and bloomless. Next time, I’ll get wire cages.
Some long-gone owner of my house planted a jarring red camellia in front of a brick chimney. I thought of moving it—I don’t like red in the garden—but soon realized the color in dreary January links to the cardinals that love to dart in the snow. Now this interloper has become my favorite. From the library’s windows on either side of the fireplace, the vibrant blossoms, wavy in the old glass, fill the winter view. The fire lights the intimate, book-lined room. Rosy faces press against the windows. Hello, hello, winter afternoon in this small world. Time to pour the tea.
Frances Mayes’ recent books are Women in Sunlight (a novel) and See You in the Piazza: New Places To Discover in Italy.