The Culture of Camellias

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Island 5: Camellias in America
 

An American grower's guide from the early 19th century 
Herman Bourne, 
Flores poetici. The Florist's Manual, being an introduction . . . for cultivators of flowers
Boston: Munroe and Francis; New York: Charles F. Francis, 1833. Alfred Chapin Rogers Collection.

American camellia-growing at first centered on New York, where several nurseries vied to have the largest selection available (as Bourne makes clear in his description of William Prince's Linnean Botanic Garden). The co-publisher attests to an increasing interest centered also on Boston, where the grower Hovey was working. Bourne's interpretation of the language of camellias is "Unpretending excellence."


A Philadelphia Camellia Grower in the 1850s 
Philadelphia: P.S.Duval [1857].

This engraving shows the impressive nursery of one of several Philadelphia growers, MacKenzie, on Camellia Place. Other 19th century American growers of Scottish background included Thomas Hogg and Robert Buist. Mrs. Phelps's family, the Leas, came from Philadelphia, which may account for the presence of this separate plate in the collection.


American camellias and American cities 
"Camellia Triumph of Philadelphia," 
from Ambroise Alexandre Verschaffelt, 1825-1886, ed., 
Nouvelle iconographie des camellias: contenant les figures et la description des plus rares, des plus nouvelles et des plus belles variétés de ce genre. Vol.9 (1860)

Along with New York and Boston, Philadelphia was a center for the American camellia craze in the mid-19th century. Several of the earlier American varieties were named for cities or towns, often in excruciating Latin derivatives (Camellia japonica novaboraci, for instance, honored New York).


Naming camellias for American heroes 
"Camellia Washingtonii," 
from Ambroise Alexandre Verschaffelt, 1825-1886, ed., 
Nouvelle iconographie des camellias: contenant les figures et la description des plus rares, des plus nouvelles et des plus belles variétés de ce genre. Vol.1 (1848)

Other American varieties paralleled the European growers in honoring national heroes. Indeed the variety shown here was only one of three camellias named for George Washington, two red and one white. In his 1838 catalogue, the New York camellia grower Michael Floy could list alongside Washingtoni andJeffersoni (and of course Floyi), FrankliniiJacksoni (also calledLandrethi after its first grower), and even Clintonia. This plate is from the second major European camellia series, produced by the Belgian camellia growers the Verschaffelt family.


What are camellias saying in the language of flowers? 
Catherine Waterman, b. 1812, 
Flora's Lexicon: an interpretation of the language and sentiment of flowers, with an outline of botany
Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1852.

Nineteenth-century flirtation affected to see a distinctive coded meaning in every flower. Waterman's often-reprinted giftbook (the library also has an edition of 1842) puts a better spin on the camellia than some other guides, which interpret it as "Indecision in love."


Camellias in antebellum South Carolina 
Mary Catherine Rion, 1826-1901, 
Ladies' Southern Florist. 2nd ed. 
Columbia, SC: Peter B.Glass, 1860. Inscribed by the publisher.

The Southern climate allowed the camellia to be grown outdoors, rather than under glass. It is traditionally claimed to have been introduced into South Carolina as early as 1786, by Andre Michaux, when he visited Middleton Place, near Charleston. Certainly, one of the Philadelphia growers, David Landreth, established a branch in Charleston from 1818 till 1862, and several other growers were based there. The camellias at Magnolia Gardens were introduced in 1848 by the Rev. John Grimke Drayton, who eventually had 300 varieties. A major area nursery was established in 1859 at Augusta, by a Belgian grower P.J. Berckmans.


Harold Hume and the Phelps Collection 
"Camellia japonica Claudia Lea," 
from H. Harold Hume, Camellias in America
Harrisburg, PA: McFarland, 1946.

The collection of garden books displayed here was built up and donated to the university by Mrs. Sheffield (Claudia Lea) Phelps and Miss Claudia Lea Phelps of Rose Hill, Aiken, SC. The standard history from the American camellia revival of the 1940s, by Harold Hume, was based in part on the Phelps books. Hume knew Mrs. Phelps and included the variety named for her, introduced by an Augusta grower in 1939, which is a delicate pink color. Ten years later, in 1949, another Augusta nursery introduced a second variety named for the Phelpses, the Claudia Lea Phelps, larger, and pinker, though splashed with white. Shown with the Claudia Lea from Hume's book is Miss Phelps's locally-printed guide, A camellia note book, Illustrated by D. T. Waring [Augusta, Ga. : Walton, ?1940], which reprinted several of her own short articles on the history of camellias from the Bulletin of the Garden Club of America, together with a simple guide to camellia classification and varieties.

 

 

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