You cannot visit the South at this time of the year and avoid falling in love with camellias. I am crazy about them. I spend an embarrassing amount of wintertime on line at the American Camellia Society website, where you can tune into what can only be called a beauty pageant of these glorious things. I fell in love with camellias in New Orleans, where my then-husband’s family lives. Thos. Lemann took me to see Longue Vue, a stunning house and garden designed in the late thirties by Ellen Biddle Shipman and William and Geoffrey Platt for the Stern family. I was a goner at the sight of those canopied branches bowing under the weight of peau de soie petals, each arrayed with what seemed like mathematical precision.
An individual camellia blossom, say, in a vase, or floating in a bowl, is the epitome of graceful, insouciant chic. But if you come upon them gathered together, you are in the presence of a lusty, nay, orgiastic riot of attention-seekers.
The white ones seem most demure. The best kinds of camellias are the ones you stumble upon accidentally. They always leave me dumbstruck. In Virginia, camellias are so abundant that people even sheer them into hedges. In spite of being treated in so disrespectful a fashion, they manage to pull off the regal bearing that is their true nature. We went to poke around a rather dilapidated house (yes, we were trespassing, I can never resist a sagging porch) and we were overcome by the sight of camellias at least twenty feet tall, bursting from behind fences. This gives new meaning to dishevelment.
Or just sitting in lonely splendor like a brooch twinkling against what must have once been a well-groomed lawn.
I especially love the sight of what I think of as Trashed Camellias, the carpet of spent blossoms that pile up and rot away at the tree’s feet. There is something marvelous about such lavish decay. Camellias are a bit histrionic, it is true. All that Pink Trash makes you understand something about living hard and dying fast.
As to where to buy camellias? It partly depends on where you live, but you can do what I always did at House & Garden, which was to run down the hall to my expert in all things horticultural, Stephen Orr. Now you can run down your keyboard, to his blog; if you don't know it, pay a call. www.whatweretheskieslike.com/ No matter what I wanted to plant, Stephen would know, or would quickly find out, the reliable sources. I intend to ask him about bulbs this fall. He'll know about camellias, he knows about everything. Plus he has the world's best play lists....