Camellias in the K. Sawada WinterGarden

Excerpts from “A Resurrection of Ancient Treasures… WinterGarden. The Camellia Through Three Hundred Years” 3rd Edition – A history and catalog of camellias by Green Nurseries in Fairhope, Alabama.

Text and photos are used with the generous permission of Bobby Green of Green Nurseries.

Immigrant from the Orient (credit Green Nurseries)


The camellia was introduced into western civilization around 300 years ago when plants of Camellia japonica were mistakenly substituted for Camellia sinensis (tea plants) in an order bound for Great Britain. The boldly flowering ‘tree of shining leaves’ created a widespread sensation, quickly becoming the rage in European Gardens, art and fashion.

Arriving in America just over 200 years ago, the camellia quickly became a naturalized citizen, settling primarily in the coastal areas of the Deep South. Here, a friendly climate and the hospitality of excited gardeners welcomed the discovery like a lost child returning to its rightful home.

Today there are more than 20,000 registered camellias with more introductions debuting each year.


Green Nurseries have avidly collected and rescued camellia treasures from old gardens, nursery sites and even cemeteries. Drawn to the historical significance of various introductions, they have collected, preserved and revived many plants discovered and bred by camellia pioneers of this area. These are their classifications of Camellia japonicas

ANTIQUE (Pre-World War 1)

The camellia came to America early in the 1800s. Soon, the popular ornamental varieties of Europe were imported and spread rapidly through the conservatories of the Northeast and the fabled Southern plantation gardens of Charleston, Mobile, Savannah and New Orleans. The blossoms’ magnificence spread like wildfire, extending all the way to the West Coast before the Civil War.

You can grow an authentic living antique, as each camellia carries the same DNA as the original plant! Varieties include:

‘Alba Plena‘ – medium formal double white blooms early in the season. Introduced in USA in 1792
‘Bella Romano’ – Formal double to peony in pink with carmine stripes. Introduced from Italy in the 1850’s
‘Dom Pedro V’ aka ‘Elisabeth’ – Formal double from white with a pink streak to solid pink flowers. Introduced from Portugal in 1872
‘Lady Vansittart’ – White-striped rose pink with many variations Introduced from Belgium in 1887
‘Pink Perfection’ – Small double formal in pink. Introduced from Japan in 1875 as ‘Usu Otome’

HISTORICAL (World War 1 to 1949)

A new generation of plantsmen in the Southeast and on the West Coast imported quantities of seed from Japan and bred exciting new varieties following World War 1.

Many of these plants survive today. Camellias took their place as garden essentials during this period.
Varieties include:

‘Dr. Tinsley’ – Pink and white ‘wild rose’ blooms. Introduced in Louisiana in 1949
‘Imura’ – Graceful weeping habit with full, simple white flowers. A Kosaku Sawada introduction from 1929.
‘Professor Charles Sargent’ – Glowing rich red, peony form at Christmas time. From Magnolia Gardens, Charleston from 1925.
‘R. L. Wheeler’ -Huge semi-double in rose pink, often with white petaloids. From Central Georgia Nursery in 1949.

HEIRLOOM (1950-1959)

Camellias and camellia collecting vaulted in popularity during the 1950s. The American Camellia Society, founded in 1945, still thrives today in its promotion of the genus.

Bellingrath Gardens, once home to one of the finest collections in the world, had to use traffic policemen to help control the masses of autos visiting the cold-weather showcase.
Some varieties include:

‘Edna Campbell Variegated’ – Semi-double violet-red mottled in white. Dates to 1954
‘Laura Walker’ – Large semi-double in intense bright red. From Marshallville, GA in 1956.
‘Rutledge Minnix’ – Semi-double glowing coral-red. From Columbus, GA from 1959
‘Sea Foam’ – Large formal double in white (late season) Released by J. T. Weisner in Florida in 1959


MODERN (1960-)

The modern camellias are often the result of careful breeding programs to achieve fragrance, color, cold hardiness, or some other desirable characteristic. May carry excellent pedigrees of antique and heirloom parentage.

Instead of a selection of varieties, we offer a quote from the Wintergarden booklet 

“Camellias have travelled far from their native homes in the Orient to Europe, and thence to America.

They have associated with traders and seafaring men, they have been exalted by kings and queens, they have felt the kindly hand of gardeners and plant lovers.

They have a romantic history that runs through many lands.'” 

Camellia sasanqua – Fall through Winter Bloom

The term “Sasanquas” covers three species of camellia: C. hiemalis, C.; sasanqua and C. vernalis.
These are the early-blooming camellias, often beginning in September and October, and depending on the variety can continue into late winter, overlapping with the C. japonica blooms.

They are broad-leaved evergreen shrubs, with shiny dark green leaves to 2ins long. Their form is usually more open, and less formal than the japonicas. Height varies from 2ft. – 12ft. Their flowers are usually single or semi-double, 2-3 inches in diameter, and very fragrant.

They are native to Japan, growing since before recorded history. Once considered the poor cousins of C. japonica, they are finding favor again due to their versatility in gardens and their multitude of blooms in an otherwise bloomless season.

Camellia Hybrids

Among the first of the modern hybrid camellias raised from see were those by J. C. Williams of Caerhays, Cornwall, England. His crosses of Camellia saluensis and Camellia japonica produced the beautiful Williamsii hybrids (1940s).

Later crosses included the Camellia reticulata hybrids – the show flowers of today. Not nearly as cold-hardy as most camellias, these are useful as cut-flowers, for their incredible size and brilliant color.

The American Camellia Society
For details of membership and more information visit their website (link will open in a new tab).

The Gulf Coast Camellia Society was organized in 1962 for the purpose of extending appreciation and enjoyment of camellias. Members come primarily from the Gulf Coast Region which covers states from Florida to Texas. For details of membership and more information visit their website (link will open in new tab).

The K. Sawada Camellia Club
Meets at the Mobile Botanical Gardens on the second Sunday of select months at 2:00pm.