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Huntington Highlight: The 39th Annual Camellia Show

The Southern California Camellia Society and The Huntington put on a wonderful show over the weekend, with a competition, educational demonstrations and a camellia sale.

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending the camellia show at The Huntington's 39th annual Camellia Show, held in Friend’s Hall and sponsored by the Southern California Camellia Society. The purpose of the Society, according to its Web site, is “to promote the appreciation of camellias and knowledge of camellia culture techniques.” Through a variety of programs, meetings and shows like the one at , the Society provides a welcoming community for dedicated enthusiasts as well as the interested novice.

The Huntington show included a camellia sale, a competition and expert demonstrations of pruning, grafting and other camellia-growing techniques.

The competition took place prior to the show's opening at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Society members judged camellias in 28 different categories and then artfully arranged the winning flowers on tables at the center of the room for all to admire. One of the judges, Jo Ann Brewer of Claremont, CA., told me that The Huntington Show is one of the favorites of its kind in the area. However, she added that the public doesn't always know about the competition aspect of the show (non-members are welcome to participate).

I asked Brewer about the criteria used to judge the camellias. She said that judges look for four things: size, form, color and condition. The first three items, she said, are a part of the flower's “nomenclature”—a term that denotes how the flower is supposed to look by nature. The condition of a flower can be affected by weather, environment, care and other factors that have nothing to do with the flower’s genetics.

Brewer then introduced me to another member and judge, Marilee Gray, who has been involved with the Society for 40 years and who loves camellias for the fact that “they’re blooming… in the winter when everything else tends to be asleep.” Gray very graciously took me on a little tour of the winners' table. She pointed out some flowers that were beautifully pink, but streaked and spotted with white. These were “variegated” camellias, the white being evidence of a genetic mutation.

Gray paused at a small, delicately pink flower and told me that it had been discovered by a former curator of the camellias at The Huntington, Rudy Moore, who named it after his son—Little Michael. Another variety, Herme, "we know is over 2,000 years old," she said.

A particularly favored camellia is called Frank Houser. "Frank Houser is one of the best flowers to come out in decades," Gray said, citing the variety's good color and the fact that the plant grows well as reasons for its popularity.

I also spoke with Brad King, who was president of the Society for 11 years and is now the president of the Society Council. King is a retired USC professor who, like Gray, appreciates camellias because they are "one of the few winter-blooming flowers." He also gave me a crash course in what is called “gibbing”—adding a plant hormone called gibberellic acid to the plant to make larger, more colorful blooms. These “treated” flowers compete in their own category to ensure fair play.

As I was talking to King, a woman approached to ask him if there was a society in San Diego. I was surprised—had she driven that far just to attend the camellia show? Turned out the answer was yes. Jackie Palmer grew up in Temple City and told me that as a girl she would get involved in the city’s camellia parade in February. She and her niece-in-law Denise Williams of Duarte, who was with her, are both devoted members of The Huntington and were clearly enjoying the show.

After wandering around inside Friend’s Hall for a while, I decided to take my newfound knowledge out into the gardens and see if I could identify any of the camellias growing on the estate. The Huntington’s collection includes nearly 80 different species and around 1,200 varieties. January and February mark the best time of year to see them as they burst into vibrant displays of color in the North Vista, Japanese Garden and Chinese Garden. 

I strolled over to the camellia garden just adjacent to the iconic Sculpture Garden. The first tree that I came to had large pink blossoms all over it. "Frank Houser," I thought. Then I looked at the identification sign at the base of the tree trunk: "Bernadatte Karsten." Sigh—I guess I still have a lot to learn.

On the other hand, as King pointed out: "You don't have to know anything to know that they're pretty."

Take advantage of the beautiful weather to get out and enjoy the gorgeous camellias at The Huntington. For information call (626) 405-2100 or visit www.huntington.org. To learn more about the camellia collection in particular, check out The Huntington Blog

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