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L.A. THEN AND NOW

The camellia's history of pageantry

Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge once celebrated the plant with a festival, and Temple City still does. But the thirsty flower has fallen from landscapers' favor in an era of water saving

February 21, 2010|By Alison Bell

Much ado is made over roses in Pasadena, home to the world-famous Rose Queen and court. But the winter-blooming camellia, currently at its seasonal peak, bears its own royal history in the area.

The flower's regal tradition dates back more than 50 years to La Cañada Flintridge's Descanso Gardens, which boasts North America's largest camellia collection. Founder E. Manchester Boddy planted the first camellias in 1935 and built the collection throughout the 1940s by acquiring camellias locally and overseas.

By the '50s, the camellias' vibrant beauty had captivated the public, and several local camellia societies had cropped up. In the '50s and early '60s, Descanso Gardens made the most of the camellia craze by hosting elaborate flower festivals in February that attracted hundreds of well-dressed men and women.

Camellia lovers strolled through flower "forests" and competed in camellia shows where the white, pink or red blossoms were judged on size, form, color and petal perfection.

Also objects of admiration: the annual Camellia Queens.

All this camellia pageantry celebrated a time of abundance in Southern California, when no one cared much about water conservation, and the thirsty camellia didn't cause a second thought.

Imported from Asia, the plants made their way to America around 1800. They were first grown in New England greenhouses, and eventually transported to the Southern and Western states, where they thrived in the warm climates. In the 1920s, Japanese nurserymen made them popular as an ornamental plant in Southern California, said David Brown, executive director of Descanso Gardens. In the 1940s, they became the flower corsage of choice among the society set.

Today, the flowers typically bloom around older homes and at botanical centers like Descanso Gardens and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. They've fallen out of favor with modern landscapers though, "because they require year-round water," Brown said.

Back in the '50s and '60s, however, when saving water was not a major concern, young women traveled from across the San Gabriel Valley for the chance to be named Descanso Gardens' Queen of Camellialand.

Photos from the era show young women in short shorts posing in front of a panel of male judges. Handwritten numbers are pinned to the women's shorts. Once named queen, the winner changed into an elegant gown, and the outgoing queen presented her with a crown of camellias before rows of spectators. The new queen then reigned over the festival.

Camellia Queen 1961, Carol (Dickerson) Peck, had a camellia plant named after her and placed in the gardens when she was just 18. Although the plant, which bore white japonica camellias, hasn't survived the years, the memories have.

"It was one of the highlights of my life, having a flower named after me," Peck said. "I really did feel like a queen."

The pageant died out in the mid- to late 1960s, when public interest in flower shows began to wane. However, Descanso Gardens is re-creating the past with a weeklong "Golden Age of the Camellia" celebration through Saturday that includes walking tours of the camellia forests, but no Camellia Queen.

Camellia monarchs still rule, though, to the east in Temple City, which this year hosts its 66th annual Camellia Festival from Friday through Feb. 28.

The festival, which includes a parade and carnival, got its start in 1944 when the Women's Club of Temple City decided to honor the ever-present flower, said festival director Nanette Fish.

The next year, the festival crowned an 8-month-old baby, Sharon Ray Pearson, queen. She rode in an open car down the city's main drag, Las Tunas Drive, as Camp Fire girls handed out camellia blossoms to spectators.

In 1947, the city aged up the queen. Officials decided that the festival should promote the growth of local youth groups. They selected the queen, as well as a king and several princes and princesses, from local first-graders.

One former Camellia Princess of 1959, Debbie (Becnel) Bush clearly remembers her time in the spotlight, even though she was only 7. "My dress was . . . green and scratchy, and I really wanted to be wearing the pretty pink chiffon dress the queen had on," she recalls. It didn't help that Bush was getting over the chickenpox. Still, she says, the overall experience was "awesome."

Today, the king and queen and their royal court, as well as four banner carriers, are named during a coronation ceremony before the festival. They are selected earlier at another long-standing Camellia Festival tradition: the Royalty Play Day, where they engage in games and sing songs and are judged on their appearance, poise, personality and attention span.

The royals make public appearances throughout the year and, during the festival's parade, ride on their own float, made of camellias, of course.

Floats and festivals aside, the camellia may be too big a water hog for today's drought-conscious, native-plant-loving consumers.

But still, says Descanso Gardens' Brown, the camellia remains "a cultural icon" in Southern California.

Even if not a lot of people can name a camellia queen.

ABell61655@aol.com

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