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The Flowers of Winter

by Sara Henderson, Director of Gardens

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

My first daffodils bloomed today. They always seem to promise the end of winter, but they are not the only flowers brave enough to bloom in January. I recently saw the lovely Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis) in full bloom behind the Bell Tower; the buds are opening on the flowering quince and Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume); and the camellias have been in bloom for many weeks. I love all the flowers of winter, but the one I could not garden without is the camellia.
There are several species of camellia suitable for Atlanta gardens, but Camellia japonica is the species that typically blooms in winter. A Chinese native, they were introduced to European gardeners when Engelbert Kaempfer, chief surgeon to the Dutch East India Company, described over 30 varieties in 1692. Almost 50 years passed before a living plant arrived in England, and another 60-plus years before they reached America in 1807. They were then considered tender hothouse plants but it wasn’t long before they were staples of gardens throughout the south.
Camelia japonica near the Rawson mausoleum

Camelia japonica near the Rawson mausoleum

Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, S.C., has been described as having the largest collection of camellias in America prior to the Civil War. This beautiful garden still holds the largest collection of pre-1900 camellia cultivars, and they are actively seeking out additional antique varieties.
Berckmans (aka Fruitland) Nursery in Augusta — which was later chosen by pro golfer and Oakland resident Bobby Jones as the site for the Augusta National Golf Club — sold 42 named varieties in 1890, and the 10th hole was called camellia in honor of the plants growing on the site.
These easy to grow plants have never lost their popularity, and we are working to add many antique varieties to Oakland’s gardens. These varieties were in gardens when Oakland was founded, and many were likely brought to the cemetery to grace the grounds.
We have recently received a gift of almost a dozen antique varieties propagated for us by our friend Jim Pruckler. They will be planted in the original Six Acres and in the area near the Bobby Jones gravesite, reflecting the long history of this beautiful plant in southern gardens.

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