Thursday, February 19, 2015


Camellia along the coulee
In the middle of the coldest winter I've experienced in New Iberia, Louisiana in many years, I'm heartened at the sight of the lone camellia tree growing in my backyard. My godfather planted the infant shrub at least twenty years ago, and regardless of sleet, snow, hard rains, and benign (?) neglect on my part, this beautiful plant has flourished. At Sewanee, Tennessee in my second home, we know spring is on its way when we see yellow daffodils breaking through the snow, but here in Louisiana the camellias and lovely Japanese magnolia trees announce that we're on the brink of a season of color and light.

While I admire the flowering camellia for its beauty, I discovered only this year that the Camellia sinensis, or tea plant, is important because tea is made from its leaves. Also, in Japan, tea drinkers sip tea made from C. sasanqua leaves, while in southern China people use camellia tea oil for cooking.

Here in south Louisiana, one of the most notable growers of delicate camellias was J. Lyle Bayless, Jr. (now deceased), an entrepreneur from Kentucky who, as a child staying at a plantation home in Natchez, Mississippi, saw a red camellia growing in the yard of the old home and became enchanted with the flower. Later, when he accompanied his father on a trip to Avery Island, he watched E.A. McIlhenny (of Tabasco fame) demonstrate the art of grafting camellias. Bayless also became fascinated with the "Jeanerette Pink" camellia growing in the yard of the Joseph Jefferson mansion on Jefferson Island. In the middle of a winter similar to the one we're experiencing, he saw the pink blossom of this tree die, then return to life two weeks later. This "resurrection" convinced him that he should plant a garden filled with camellias.

Bayless owned the site now known as Rip Van Winkle Gardens and in 1952 cleared the land around the old Jefferson House and planted a garden with numerous camellia plants. In 1965, many of his prize camellias, along with azaleas and other plantings, were killed due to salt dust from the mines on the island stirred up by a hurricane. In 1966, Bayless employed Geoffrey Wakefield, an English horticulturist, to design Rip Van Winkle Gardens and for three years, Wakefield put in large numbers of camellia plants.

Clusters of camellia flowers
During Bayless's lifetime, he exhibited his camellias and won more than 1,000 prize ribbons at shows held in the southern states. He also hybridized many camellias, one of which he named "Elizabeth" after a relative. Although the Lake Peigneur salt mine disaster destroyed much of Bayless's gardens in 1980, horticulturist Mike Richard (and now owner of Rip Van Winkle Gardens) orchestrated the replanting of the gardens. Today, magnolias, azaleas, and Bayless's beloved camellias can be found along garden trails in Rip Van Winkle Gardens.

Avery Island, another one of the five islands near New Iberia, also has a plethora of camellias in its Jungle Gardens, and numerous yards throughout New Iberia are filled with the flowers of these early blooming trees. I enjoy filling bowls with the pink blossoms that my struggling tree (whose variety name I don't know) produces, and I've named it "Spring Festival" after x williamsii, cuspidata, a hybrid that gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit. Although this isn't the plant's real name, it should be because it has survived the neglect of its owner and continues to remind us that the festival of spring is just around the corner.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan
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