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The Colonel’s Camellias
This little feature can best be appreciated over a glass of iced tea. So take a moment to pour a glass and then read on.
The growing season is over and many people who love growing things are resigned to winter’s onset and the cold, early darkness it brings. Not all, however, view winter that way. As I flip through the index cards in my memory under the category of “Gardeners,” I remember growers who chose to be specialists. I remember a friend and business associate of my Dad’s, Holcombe Verdery of Harlem, Georgia, who grew spectacular roses. His roses seemed as big as a head of lettuce, if not bigger. He had a remarkable rose garden, one fit for a president.
And then there were the rosarians, that couple from Newberry, South Carolina, Dr. Charles Jeremias (of Washington, Georgia) and his wife, Lee. These devoted gardeners cultivate roses they find in abandoned cemeteries, of which some species trace their roots to the 1600s. They keep ancient rose species alive, so in a real way they’re preservationists.
It’s been my privilege to meet many interesting people like the Jeremias thanks to writing assignments. Among them walks Parker Connor Jr. who’s close to, if not, 92 today. He lives in Mt. Pleasant now, but once upon a time he lived on Edisto Island at Oak Island Plantation. I was a guest in his home in 1993, a writer on assignment as usual. My mission was to write about the colonel who had an unusual pastime, as you’ll see.
The setting for his avocation is classic. Oak Island Plantation, built in 1828, sits at the end of a sandy road overlooking the Edisto marsh. The plantation home was long occupied by Connor’s ancestors except for a stint during the Civil War when Union troops lived there. Connor told me the Union soldiers “liberated” the family’s original furniture.
The house is stately and Southern through and through. The home, on the National Register of Historic Places, faces south across expansive reaches of salt marsh. “All the old Southern homes face south,” said Connor. We walked the grounds that day, the Colonel and I, he ticking off the names of prized camellias … “Dawn’s Early Light, Boutonniere, Walterboro, and Wildwood.”
It’s been some 17 years since I walked the grounds at the colonel’s home but I well remember my time there. The calls of clapper rails drifted over the marsh and the cries of pileated woodpeckers echoed through pines. The story of Oak Island Plantation, however, was not to be found in the pines, nor in the Colonel’s old mansion, nor out in the marsh. Its story was about camellias, those plants that bloom as few others do: in late fall, winter, and early spring. The growing season, you see, goes on for some hardy plants and their lucky growers. With camellia season approaching, now is as good a time as any to tell you about the Colonel’s camellias.
I suppose he was tired of the clashing of metal, shouting commands, and war’s brutality, this man who led infantrymen. After retiring in 1978, the Colonel turned to something more peaceful. Growing camellias. It only took him 15 years to go from the infantry to the top of the camellia world. In fact, he reigned as one of the Southeast’s premiere camellia growers in the 1980s and ’90s.
As we walked that crisp January morning, he told me about his decision to retire, pointing at a nearby bloom and interjecting, “Dixie Night Supreme, gorgeous blooms.” Some of his camellias, such as the Anemone and the Peony, are perfection. He had 400 varieties and he routinely patrolled his camellia kingdom seeking the perfect bloom. He knew precisely what the judges looked for in a perfect bloom.
“Some judges like pink, some like red, some white, but perfection is what they look for,” he said. He then launched into a description of an irreproachable, semi-double blossom. “If it’s a semi-double, all the petals must be perfect, intact, standing up, and fresh. That’ll win,” he pronounced with an air of finality.
As we walked, I noticed several plants had swaths of green cheesecloth wrapped around them. “To keep the infernal bees out,” said the Colonel. “They can destroy a flower in two hours.” The morning was cool. There were no bees. As if reading my mind, Colonel Connor continued. “You wait two hours,” he said, “and you’ll see a couple hundred bees on every flower in this yard. They pollinate the flowers but they destroy the flower rooting around to get the pollen, kicking up their little feet like pigs in a trough. I would gladly get rid of the bees if I knew how. I’m an environmentalist but not that kind.” No sooner than he said this he pointed to a delicate blossom. “That’s a Miss Charleston.”
This plantation, with its ties to Connor’s ancestors, its Civil War legacy, and massive oaks grows America’s oldest camellia bush. “That big camellia over there under that oak was planted in 1830,” said the Colonel. “It’s probably the biggest one in the United States, 64 inches around its base.” That was almost 17 years ago. How big, I wonder, is it today?
The Colonel became interested in growing camellias by studying the history of the family plantation. He used to listen to his grandfather describe Oak Island Plantation as a showplace prior to the devastation of the Civil War. His great-great-great-grandfather William Seabrook completed the plantation in 1828. A formal English garden was laid out in 1830. It contained thousands of roses, and later Japanese gardeners built a water garden on the grounds.
The old grounds could have rivaled Middleton or Magnolia Gardens, those Lowcountry jewels, Connor told me. But then “The War” came along and the family’s fortune evaporated leaving them penniless for some time. “Everything,” said Connor, “went to rack and ruin.”
It’s interesting to speculate what might have come of Oak Island Plantation had there been no war. Perhaps it would have taken its place along celebrated Lowcountry gardens where camellias for sure are bright stars masquerading as native plants. They’re not.
All this Southern camellia business came about as an accident of sorts. Truth be told it comes down to deception. That tea you’re supposed to be sipping: it’s a cousin to camellias. Camellias and tea plants are in the same family. The Colonel told me how camellias came to the colonies.
“The British went to China to buy tea plants,” said the Colonel, “and the Chinese fooled the British by selling them camellias instead.” The Colonel went on to say he’d never heard of anyone making tea from the flowering camellia, but he “once heard about someone making some camellia wine.” It doesn’t sound palatable does it, certainly not like the tea we prize down South, which comes from Camellia sinensis.
After water, tea is the second most widely consumed beverage in the world. So enjoy your tea and be glad the British finally got hold of some real tea plants. Tea, you see, as Southern as it seems, came to us from China, courtesy of Britain.
And as for the Colonel and other camellia enthusiasts, this cousin of the tea plant may not be potable, but it brings them joy of another sort: beautiful splashes of color in a season known for cool, dark days. And more than that, it brings something better, a colorful way to compete while forgetting their troubles, except, of course, for those infernal bees.