Winter blooms in Southern gardens

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 10th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Flower power.

Wintertime means much of the landscape is dormant now. But one hardy shrub? It’s strutting its stuff with extravagant red and pink blooms, lots of history and a whole lot of fans.

EICHER: Last weekend WORLD Senior Correspondent Kim Henderson attended a unique flower show and brings us the story.

KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Magnolias and azaleas are strong contenders, but in most Southern yards, camellias are the common denominator. 

Common enough to show up in To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 11.


While Jem Finch took his anger out on Mrs. Dubose’s poor camellias, the rest of us just take in their ability to color a winter flower bed. A camellia’s cotton candy blooms open up even as a dog’s water bowl beside it freezes solid. 

CAMPBELL: They love the flower, they love the flower, you know. And it’s just a wonderful thing.

Jim Campbell is past president of the American Camellia Society. He’s not surprised by the hundreds of enthusiasts crossing state lines to come to this 68th annual camellia show in small town Mississippi.   

But wait. There’s more. Even if you’ve never seen a camellia plant, most people have tasted one.

CAMPBELL: The main camellia everybody knows about, but doesn’t really know about, is camellia sinensis, and camellia sinensis is the tea plant. That’s where all tea comes from. And so a lot of people don’t realize that it is a camellia… 


Before visitors enter the event center, they pass by a trailer filled with prize camellias grown in Folsom, Louisiana. A worker is unloading them for shoppers. 

MIZELL: Camellias are kind of like the Cadillac of plants…

That’s the trailer’s owner, David Mizell. When other nurseries focused on fast-dollar flowers, his family’s nursery went a different direction.

MIZELL: I said, “We’re going to grow camellias, specialize in camellias.” We grow 90 to a 100 thousand a year… 

The Richards have traveled two hours to come to their first camellia show. They’re sifting through what’s left in Mizell’s trailer. 

MRS. RICHARD: I was looking for the size of the bloom and when it blooms…

Her husband stands nearby, waiting. He’s ducking the rain.  

MR. RICHARD: I get to do the work at home — planting them. (laughs)

AUDIO: [Sound of crowd]

The atmosphere inside the building where judging will take place is a little more serious. Participants arrive with carefully-boxed blooms. 

CONTESTANTS: So we’ll do a White Empress in novice. Should I do that in novice? (No, I’d do …) 

Each entry gets a label, a tiny glass vase, and an assigned spot on a folding table. One participant is working on presentation. 

MAN: Well, you want the flower to meet the eye of the judge, the angle of the flower makes a difference… 

He’s proud of his San Dimas.

MAN: It’s a very beautiful variegated flower, particularly the stamens and  the bright yellow on top…

People come to these shows for all sorts of reasons.

WOMAN: This is actually one of my dad’s favorites. So I brought it here to show for him, in remembrance of him.

DEAN: We’re also looking for maybe some older varieties that may be close to being lost.

MAN: My wife’s really into it. My dad’s really into it. So I get dragged along.

WOMAN: I enjoy it. I come willingly. I don’t get dragged.

One of the show’s judges, New Orleans resident Dennis Hart, offered some perspective on camellia culture. 

HART: I only have 30 camellia bushes, so I consider myself a camellia buff, not a camellia nut. I think once you go over a thousand plants, then you’re in the N-U-T category, my personal opinion.

Still, he says moving away from his bushes would be hard. 

HART: It’ll be like abandoning your children. Who knows what the next owner would do? 

Contestant Margo Fort can relate to that point. She lives in Greenville, Alabama—also known as the “Camellia City.” The man who started her plants helped make the camellia the state flower of Alabama. 

FORT: I inherited a historic camellia garden when I bought my historic home. So I have one of the earliest time capsules that I’m trying to restore—camellia gardens. 

Her garden’s heritage even includes a romantic link. In 1916, a bride came to the United States  from Japan, bringing a chest of 500 seeds as a dowry. Her horticulturist husband used them to produce some of the camellias Fort uncovered. 

FORT: I, along with my son, personally filled up 20, over 22 large dumpsters of vines and brush and undergrowth and the way we figured out what the camellias were so we couldn’t, we wouldn’t cut them down is the leaves are serrated. We found like 52.

All the digging and tending was worth it. Margo Fort and her fought-for camellias went on to snag a first-place ribbon at this year’s show.  

For cultivators with a Bible bent, rewards also come in the form of insight into things like good soil. Pruning. The sure fact that flowers fade, but God’s Word stands forever.  

But as Jason Dean notes, even an appreciative glance at a camellia gives its creator glory.  

DEAN: Drive around your city this time of year and look for the camellias. They’ll be about the only thing really about blooming. And, you know, just enjoy them.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Brookhaven, Mississippi.

(Photo/Kim Henderson)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Winter blooms in Southern gardens

  1. Keith stutts says:

    Anything Camillas is always appreciated!!!!!

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