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Camellia, the black-tie bloom

Like the queen of a winter formal, the flower is holding court from forests to backyards to judges' booths.

January 27, 2005|Ariel Swartley | Special to The Times

I knew camellias spoke the language of romance long before I saw Greta Garbo in "Camille" pin one last perfect blossom to her waist. My fascination with these flowers began when I was in the sixth grade. I was at a friend's house one evening when a small white florist's box was delivered to the door. At the same moment my friend's older sister -- usually our impatient, bluejeaned baby-sitter -- appeared at the top of the stairs in a haze of pink chiffon. My friend and I raced to bring her the box, dying to see what lay within. Carefully she peeled back the folds of waxed green tissue and drew out a single blush camellia, as symmetrical as if we'd drawn it with our compasses. As she slipped the corsage, mounted on silver elastic, over her wrist, I was certain that if only I had such a magical flower to wear, I, too, would be able to fill out a strapless gown and dance confidently in heels.

Here in Los Angeles we're as apt to encounter camellias growing outside our bank branch as adorning a ballroom. Indeed, to say these Asian natives thrive in our mild winters is an understatement. One camellia on the grounds of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has been there since before Henry Huntington bought the property -- and that was in 1903.

The Huntington's camellia garden illustrates on a grand scale one reason Californians love these plants: Few others can lend such a formal air to a lawn. Partly it's their evergreen leaves, so glossy that the garden looks as though it's just been polished -- even in summer when the shrubs are out of bloom. And when they are in flower, the elaborately constructed blossoms are so perfectly set off by the dark foliage that the most elegant rose looks almost shabby by comparison.

Of course, to talk about a camellia "shrub" can be misleading: There are plants in older neighborhoods from Altadena to Los Feliz that remind us of camellias' other, wilder side. (In China they grow as mountain trees.) These are the antithesis of formal. Easily reaching 20 feet, they block the light from second-story windows and turn side yards into tangled, mysterious groves.

January and February are the prime blooming months for most of the camellia varieties grown in our region. Perhaps the best place to see both faces of this complex beauty -- the polite and the untamed -- is Descanso Gardens in La Canada, where newspaper publisher E. Manchester Boddy began planting camellias in the late 1930s. Today the 20 acres of old-growth oaks that he chose to shade his plantings are home to 35,000 plants.

My first stop, however, on a visit to Descanso in early January is not this enchanted forest, but a vault-roofed meeting room where I find 20 men and women from the Southern California Camellia Society whose passion for these flowers makes mine look like a schoolgirl crush.

Outside it's pouring rain. Inside the room, however, there's a rosy glow. It comes from close to 100 individual camellia blossoms filling a long table, each sitting perkily in a plastic exhibitor's cup. As I will soon learn at this Judges Symposium and Exhibitor's School, the height of these cups is strictly regulated -- as is almost everything else in a camellia show, including the size a flower is allowed to be, and the number of leaves that can be shown with each blossom. What I will also learn is that here in the seemingly genteel world of horticultural exhibitions, just as in the rougher world of political campaigns, rules are made to be broken.

How devoted are these camellia lovers? I hear one older man apologize that health problems have forced him to hire a helper to lug fertilizer to his bushes. At first, though, it's hard to pay attention to the people because I'm so ravished by the flowers. Many are more than 5 inches in diameter. Others seem to have been dip-dyed through successive shades of rose. And one tiered beauty sits nearly 4 inches high, looking like a shell-pink prom gown.

How, I wonder, did so many different shapes -- here a peony, there a wild rose -- come from a single species? The answer to that question, as comments made by these enthusiasts suggest, lies not only in gardeners' irrepressible urge to improve upon nature, but in the camellia's own genetic exuberance, which often leads to different-shaped flowers on a single plant.

These shapes were already being codified in Europe in the 1800s. Today most lists recognize six basic forms of the Camellia japonica, including "single," whose six or seven petals surround a visible brush of yellow stamens; "formal-double," a symmetrical mound that completely hides the stamens; and "anemone," which features a central cluster of small upright "petaloids" sitting like a pompom on a wide-petaled plate.

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