Blossoms of Winter
It hardly seems fair, but an explosion of red, pink, and white blooms are taking over Lowcountry gardens while our Northern neighbors are enduring their grayest time of year. Like black-and-white Kansas versus technicolor Oz, the Carolina Sea Islands and their mainland surrounds are in full bloom.
The star of this (relatively) colder-weather show is the lovely camellia, an evergreen shrub or small tree from the Theaceae family. Sporting large blossoms and shiny leaves, camellias come in a variety of colors, patterns, and blossom styles in nearly 300 species. "Single" types feature flat, bowl-shaped flowers with prominent stamens. "Semi-double" varieties offer multiple rows of large outer petals, while the center includes a mix of petals and stamens. The most complex species are the "double" camellias, which feature rows of overlapping petals reminiscent of peonies, roses, or carnations (see photo below). This resemblance, along with the plant's blooming season of roughly October through April, has led some to call camellias "Winter Roses."
In addition to the different blossom shapes, colors range from white to all shades of pink and red. There are even variegated types that appear striped or trimmed, and some are highlighted by their bright yellow central stamens. Spicing things up even more, these colorful showstoppers don't bloom at the same time. Some species are early bloomers, bursting onto the scene in the fall before the azaleas have even finished their turn. Other camellia blossoms (like the Nativity variety shown in the photo above) make their appearance closer to Christmas, while later-bloomers take over in mid-winter and last until the spring azaleas burst forth. If you're blessed to have a varied garden like mine, the result is year-round color. (In fact, other than the top photo in this post, all were snapped in my own front yard.)
Flowers from the Far East
Long before they were a Lowcountry staple, camellias were cultivated in gardens in China and Japan for thousands of years. After making their way to Europe in the mid-18th century, the beautiful plants were imported to America in 1797. The mild winters and acidic soil
common to the Southern states proved the ideal home for these new exotic blooms. Along with them came legends and superstitions, including the Asian belief that the camellia represents the union between two lovers. The flower's delicately layered petals represent the woman, while the green leafy part of the stem that holds the petals together--the calyx--represents the man who loves and protects her. For camellias, the two are joined together, even after death. You see, when the petals of most flowers fall off, the calyx will stay intact. When a camellia blossom's life is over, though, the calyx and petals fall away together, representing eternal love. Other legends focus on the symmetrical accuracy of the plant's blooms, leading camellias to also represent perfection--and make them the ideal gift to celebrate a special accomplishment.
A Spot of Tea
As if their beauty weren't enough, camellias even offer practical uses. Some white-flowered species, known as "tea camellias," are cultivated commercially so that their tasty leaves can be processed into dried tea. Besides its delicious flavor, the tea can be used as
a herbal remedy for illnesses including asthma, bacterial infections, and heart disease. In addition to its use as a beverage and medicine, the plant's seeds can be pressed to create oil for use in cooking and as a seasoning, or the oil can be used to clean, protect, and sharpen knives and other cutting tools.
As for me, I'm content to enjoy the continuity of color throughout my yard and those throughout the Lowcountry all winter long. If you would like to soak in some of this new year beauty, check out the camellia garden at the Smithsonian-affiliated Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. Admission is free, and you will be treated to an enchanting stroll through more than 130 labeled historic and exotic camellia plants, all tucked beneath the swaying branches of giant live oak trees on the banks of a tidal salt marsh. What better way to spend a winter afternoon?