How a flower exemplifies its form, I quickly learn as the symposium begins, is an important principle of show judging. A formal-double that lies flat -- however much it seems to recall the rose window at Notre Dame -- loses points. "Every petal," Marilee Gray, a past president of the society, instructs, "should have lift and definition." For a second I wonder if we're talking about a flower or Mr. Universe.
Color is also an area where I'll have to retool my tastes. Pure white varieties like my favorite 'Nuccio's Gem' are unlikely to win blue ribbons. Judges succumb to regional preferences like anyone else, we're told, and in Southern California, brilliant colors are king. In the midst of all this flower power, it's ironic to remember that camellias in their native China and Japan were first grown strictly for their leaves and seeds. (The latter were a source of oil.) The species now covering these tables, C. japonica and the larger C. reticulata, were first described by Western writers at the end of the 17th century. That they made their way to Europe, however, was due as much to botanical ignorance as to a proper appreciation of their charms.
In the 1700s the dried leaves of the Chinese shrub Camellia sinensis -- more familiar to us as tea -- were commanding steep prices. Tea drinking had become a Western passion, and China carefully maintained its monopoly on its biggest cash crop by restricting foreign traders' movements and purchases. Therefore one importer, a director of the Swedish East India Company, was elated to be sailing home with two healthy specimens of the valuable Chinese tree.
As he delivered them to the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus, the director may have thought he was paving the way for legions of Western tea planters. When the trees flowered, however, it was clear that he had been snookered. Instead of the tiny cupped blooms of the tea plant, the trees bore the showy ones of its japonica cousin.
Back in Descanso's meeting room, "showy" is taking on new meaning. It's the job of camellia judge and frequent prizewinner Elsie Bracci to teach us how to prepare our superstar blooms for their competition close-ups. The parallels with human beauty pageants are irresistible as she displays her "show kit," which includes Q-tips for encouraging petal lift and a soft makeup brush for removing specks of dirt and lint. "Camellias are pretty resilient," she assures us, then gently plunges her fingers into the heart of a blossom and tousles it to a brisker stance, careful all the while not to bruise the petals with her nails.
After the anxious work of choosing and cutting blooms (morning is best); packing them in solution-filled cups (sugar water is fine); nestling the cups in plastic sweater boxes lined with polyester fiberfill (the kind used to stuff pillows); and shepherding the boxes onto an airplane if it's a faraway show, the sight of an imperfection on an otherwise crackerjack contender can bring a crisis of indecision. Bracci's advice is clear: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." The tweezers in her kit will take care of the "little petaloid that's come up where it shouldn't be"; scissors and a steady hand can reshape a brown-creased petal so that it's flawless again.
But what if the browning is due to camellia petal blight, an audience member asks. (That's an ugly, fast-spreading fungus that gets your prized beauty thrown straight out of the competition.) In this company, where judges are also contenders, there's still no hesitation. Bracci sums up with a principle I have often subscribed to, as both a gardener and a romantic: If something looks perfect, it is.
Still, when the lunch break comes, I can't help eyeing the camellia table a little more closely. That high pink prom dress of a flower that I'm so taken with -- isn't the cup it's sitting in higher than the rest? More like the ones permitted in Northern California shows, but banned here? I can't be sure, but then I don't really want to be.
Experts disagree on exactly when the first camellias came to the United States, but it was not long after the Revolutionary War. By the early 1800s these floral prima donnas were being competitively bred in greenhouses from Boston to Charleston and being given names like 'George Washington' and 'Jeffersoni' (for Thomas Jefferson). One participant in this horticultural fervor, Yankee seed store owner Col. James Lafayette Warren, arrived in Sacramento, drawn by the Gold Rush. In 1852 he imported California's first camellia seeds. It took a few decades for the plants to wend their way south, but by the late 1880s they'd made themselves at home in the San Gabriel Valley.