Flowers in Natchez

Posted: July 24th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Art | No Comments »

I guess file this under art- gardening is art, right? Apparently there used to be a Men’s Camellia Club that my great uncle was a part of. Green Leaves is the house my family owns in Natchez, Mississippi, home of the most millionaires in the country pre-depression; Ruthie is my mom’s oldest sister. During the spring, the camellias are everywhere, the garden drips with them, their petals carpet the entire area.

Also, can we take a moment to imagine how different it must have been, back when men were part of camellia clubs and people planted flowers to show status? i guess they probably still do the latter, i just fortunately don’t know rich people with status (we lost our fortune in the crash and depression; nuns burned down our castle on the hudson next to the rockefellers (eh?) except for one tiffany stained glass window in a museum somewhere). um, i’m kind of glad i didn’t live then (especially when i put on the dresses and frills and frumpets they wore, jesus) and that i don’t have to worry about all of the things that money and heritage brings now. like debutant balls and good matches. shudder.

Alliance works to preserve camellias

By Adam Koob | The Natchez Democrat

Published Thursday, July 24, 2008

NATCHEZ — To the list of rare treasures unique to Natchez, add flowers — specifically the camellias.

On Wednesday afternoon, members of the Great American Gardens Preservation Alliance were in Natchez scouting out rare breeds of camellias.

The alliance, formed in February, is a group devoted to cataloging and propagating ancient and historic cultivars of camellias and azaleas.

The terms ancient and historic are used as time references in the dating of camellia varieties.

Ancient refers to plants planted before 1900 and historic is used to mark plants planted between 1900 and 1960.

Alliance member Tom Johnson said while Natchez has unique azaleas, it has approximately 30 cultivars of historic camellias not found any place else.

And Johnson would know, he and fellow alliance member Miles Beach, both work for Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in South Carolina, the oldest public garden in the country.

At Magnolia, Beach is the director of the camellia collection and Johnson is the director of horticulture and facilities.

“It’s like a race against time,” Johnson said of collecting the different varieties.

Johnson said collecting the plants is the only way to guarantee some of their futures.

Some are so rare, he said that a single freak occurrence, like a hurricane, could wipe out an entire cultivar.

“They’re worth holding on to,” he said.

The two men were in Natchez this week collecting cuttings — called scions — of camellias to bring back to Magnolia so they could be cataloged and re-grown.

The re-grown plants will be sent to other alliance members to be raised.

On Wednesday, Beach and Johnson were at Green Leaves, a private home with an extensive collection of historic camellias.

Beach and Ruthie Coy, whose family owns the home, walked through the garden collecting clippings of rare camellias that will be taken back to Magnolia.

But a walk through the garden at Green Leaves garden is not a typical stroll — it’s a walk back in time.

Coy said her grandfather, Melchior Beltzhoover, planted most of his camellias during the 1920s.

The reason — he was part of a men’s camellia club in Natchez.

“At the time that was that was the thing to do,” Coy said.

The garden is mapped out with a grid, and each plant’s name has been recorded along with its location in the garden.

And if it all seems like a bit much for flowers, Johnson said camellias are not thought of today as they once were.

Johnson said camellias were once mostly grown by society’s aristocrats and were a status symbol.

They were so sought after that two groups generally cultivated the flowers.

Johnson said the well-to-do would grow great amounts of the camellias; the second group grew considerably less.

Johnson said the captains of ships that imported the plants would normally keep a few for their wives.

“They would just plant three or four around their houses,” he said.

But unlike a captain’s wife the camellias at Green Leaves were all meticulously recorded then planted.

So popular that detailed records were kept to trace the linage of the plants.

Johnson said there are plants at Green Leaves, some planted in the mid -1920s, that can be traced directly back to Magnolia.

Beach said the garden at Green Leaves is the most well documented garden in the city.

“It’s a treasure,” he said. [oh thanks, thanks]

And that might be the best way to envision what Beach and Johnson — go on treasure hunts.

Johnson said by the end of 2008 they will have visited every botanical and public garden that could potentially have the rare flowers.

“At that point it becomes a seek and find mission in peoples backyards,” Johnson said. hs_camellias220.jpg

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