December Blooms

Though my garden has been pretty quiet lately, one of my Camellia shrubs is just beginning to bloom this week. Although the majority of my plants are native, my interest in camellias goes back to my first garden. I had no idea when I moved to central North Carolina in the early 1990’s that it was a garden mecca. The closest nursery to me, Camellia Forest, was a beautiful destination, and I learned so much from the husband and wife who ran it at the time, Clifford and Kai Mei Parks. It continues as an active nursery today run by their son David and his wife Christine.

Clifford Parks started his camellia research while working at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum. He and his wife founded Camellia Forest Nursery, located near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where Dr. Parks taught at that time. He provided me with an endless supply of unusual plants he cleared out at least once a year to make way for more treasures from his Asian plant explorations. I would often fill my car a number of times ferrying these treasures to my garden, priced so low he practically gave them away to me since no one else seemed interested.

I remember many fascinating conversations with him about his plant collecting trips and was impressed by his knowledge of these unusual specimens he introduced to the world of horticulture. Many of these, in pre-internet days, were hard to research, but my yard there became a trial garden of sorts. I learned the habits of many exotic trees and shrubs and explored the hardiness of assorted camellias.

His wife Kai Mei gave me great advice on beginning my garden, starting with the suggestion to first choose and place the woody components to give structure to everything else I would grow. I have followed this advice in every garden since. I have fond memories exploring the nursery and gardens with her, as she shared a lifetime of gardening knowledge with me.

The Camellia pictured here, Camellia japonica ‘Unryu’, is best known for its unusual branching pattern. At each growth node on its branches, the stems grow at a 45-degree angle. This zig zag pattern gives the plant its cultivar name, since Unryu translates as Dragon In The Clouds. This refers to the resemblance of these contorted branches to a dragon climbing up into the sky. My imagination doesn’t always see this, but it adds a very nice exotic bonsai look to my garden.

I admire both its complex geometric shape, and the pretty flowers now starting to open. They are large and pink, with bright golden yellow stamens. This flower was in fact so heavy that it bowed down to the ground and I needed to pick it up to take its portrait. The dark green foliage is glossy and evergreen, contributing to its landscape value. Since they are in bloom at a time few other plants are flowering in my garden or woods, camellias seem to attract many pollinators. Perhaps they help overeager insects survive through winter to a time of greater pollen and nectar abundance. After an autumn here that often has been cold as winter, and approaching the darkest day of the year, it is nice to have some bright color in my yard.