Crazy for Camellias

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 14, 2006

The winter landscape in Butler County is never as bleak as it can be in other parts of the country. Our mild climate allows spring green grass to sprout in spots; flowering plants show off their beautiful blooms.

Of course, one of the plants bringing the greatest beauty and southern charm to our area has to be the camellia.

But did you know it started out prized more for its taste than its good looks?

A beauty from Asia

Camellia sinensis, the &#8220common tea plant,” has been around for centuries in the Orient. Camellias were brought to England in the late 18th century by Captain Connor of the East India Company.

By the 1830s, six varieties of camellias had been introduced to England.

In the United States, tea seed was introduced in the 1790s in an attempt to start tea plantations. A lack of capital, disease and other problems made the tea-growing plans go awry, but gardeners began to enjoy them as greenhouse plants in the Northeast.

Camellias began to journey south in the early 1800s, where they soon caught the imagination of flower lovers.

Camellias in dozens of varieties, old and new, can be found across the county, especially in the county seat – Alba Plena, Myrtifolia, Beauty of Greenville, Betty Sheffield, and many, many more grace homes, businesses, schools and churches.

Camellias have been a part of the local scene for a century and a half, with records of Butler County residents ordering camellia plants as far back as the 1850s.

Crazy for camellias

But the true camellia craze arose in the area in the late 1930s. That's when a group of prominent businessmen, who also happened to be flower enthusiasts, actively began to promote the beautiful blooms.

Nonnie Stanley Hardin, whose father, J. Glenn Stanley, was then editor of The Greenville Advocate, remembers her dad asking her to wear a camellia plucked from the family's own garden on a regular basis.

&#8220He wanted us to wear a camellia pinned to our coat for school, or wear one in our hair for a party…it was just part of our daily life,” Hardin recalls.

Garden clubs shared tips on growing and propagating the plant with members, and a regular column appeared in The Advocate promoting the camellia and cluing readers in on the current spots with the loveliest blooms.

As Butler County Historical Society President (and camellia enthusiast) Barbara Middleton has noted, &#8220Greenville was known for her beautiful camellias 20 years before the camellia was named the state flower in 1959.”

When Ben Arthur Davis, a Crenshaw County native and garden magazine editor, spoke to the now-defunct Greenville Garden Club in 1937, he praised the city for such an abundance of beautiful camellias in one place, saying &#8220only Mobile and New Orleans were comparable.”

Birth of a city slogan

Davis' visit sparked much interest in local residents. In January 1938, the Greenville Garden Club selected the camellia japonica as the city flower and requested the city administration make it the official city flower, which they did.

On Feb. 3, 1938, J. Glenn Stanley adopted the slogan, &#8220Greenville, The Camellia City” as the official heading for his newspaper. &#8220The Camellia City” was born. According to Middleton, &#8220the new slogan was adopted by city officials, civic organizations and businessmen. Pictures of camellias began appearing on products and signs everywhere.”

A local diary regularly featured pictures of camellia varieties such as Alba Plena, Pride of Greenville and Beauty of Greenville on its milk cartons.

The garden club urged residents to &#8220plant at least one camellia on each front lawn.” The club event took orders from local citizens who could not obtain the size and/or variety of camellias they wanted from local nurseries, and placed them with larger suppliers in Baldwin and Mobile counties.

What a show

The first official camellia show was held in 1939 and hosted by the Greenville Garden Club, with the shows becoming a regular event in the city for the next 30-plus years.

Students at W.O. Parmer Elementary School put on an original musical production celebrating the history and the beauty of the official city flower, just one of the events honoring the camellia. Classes and school clubs organized annual plantings of the city's signature shrub.

Businesses took on the name, including the Camellia Drive-in and Camellia City Florist.

A new high school football competition known as The Camellia Bowl was later created for the city.

Greenville became camellia mad, it seems.

Patriotic plant

During WW II, the flowering evergreen shrub even played a part in supporting &#8220G.I. Joe.” According to county historian Annie Crenshaw, &#8220hundreds of blooms were donated to the USO following flower shows, and camellia bushes were planted in honor of men and women in the military.”

The local garden club also made kit bags for local servicemen and the Red Cross, and sent food and flowers for the dining tables of officers and guards at a German prisoner of war camp near Greenville.

War bond funds were also raised by the sale of camellia plants. In fact, in 1944, three camellia plants, now located on the lawn of the Butler County Courthouse, raised no less than $25,000 in war bonds with their sale.

The plants were donated by local nurseries and residents.

Past and present

Today, the annual camellia shows are a thing of the past. The diary with its camellia cartons is long gone, as are the Camellia Drive-In and the Camellia Bowl.

Some of the city's older camellias have been in danger of being choked out by weeds and overgrowth in certain areas, including the Beeland Park Complex where the Boys and Girls Club is now located.

In the 21st century, however, there seems to be a renewed interest in the flowering evergreen that gave the city its familiar slogan. Jennifer Stringer and the city's horticultural department have been grafting and propagating camellia plants to allow new generations the opportunity to enjoy their beauty.

Clean-up efforts by the Greenville Lions Club in 2004 returned the Beeland Park area to some of its former glory.

A camellia show was held in 2002, the first official show in Greenville in 15 years, drawing more than 100 entries from across southeastern Alabama.

Photographers and artists continue to document these delicate-looking flowers, bringing their beauty indoors all year round.

And camellia gardening veterans such as Ed Jernigan, Barbara Middleton and Paul Langford, share the beauty of the freshly-plucked blooms with their friends and neighbors.

&#8220Remember the camellia – it's such an important part of our city's history,” Middleton says.