In winter, while much of the country is buried under feet of snow and ice, Savannah’s famous camellias come out to play.
While camellia japonica is native to China, its gleaming leaves and layered petals have become as synonymous with Savannah as live oaks and Spanish moss.
For this, we can thank Judge Arthur Solomon, a Chatham County commissioner from 1914 to 1960 and an adventurous and passionate camellia collector. An active member of Savannah Men’s Garden Club and co-founder of the American Camellia Society, Solomon traveled far and wide in search of camellias for his personal collection, which he brought back washed of their native soil and packed in peat moss. When Solomon opened up his garden to the public every year, announcing his guided tours of Grimball Point in the local paper, many visitors left his lush corner of Isle of Hope with cuttings or a freshly-snipped bloom.
According to Gene Phillips, owner of Savannah’s unofficial camellia headquarters Gene’s Nursery and president of Coastal Georgia Camellia Society, Solomon’s green thumb also went to work beyond his own property lines. “The Judge” made it his personal mission to plant trees and shrubs throughout Savannah’s highways and roads, propagating azaleas, oleanders, live oaks and, yes, camellias, peppering them through parks and squares for public enjoyment.
Another camellia-devoted Savannahian was Gene’s own father, Francis Eugene, a disabled World War II veteran who began his nursery in 1957. As a boy, Gene learned the craft and continues to grow around 50 varieties to this day. He and the rest of the Coastal Georgia Camellia Society are delighted to see a resurgence in the camellia’s popularity. From the 1940s to early 1970s, camellia collecting was all the rage, with many gardeners keeping a greenhouse entirely dedicated to ornamental camellia japonica or the tea leaf-producing sinensis. Garden clubs organized camellia shows where aficionados would show off their biggest, brightest blooms.
“It was serious,” Phillips shares. “You may have been best friends, but when you walked in the door, you left that friendship outside. The winner got their picture holding their bloom in the newspaper, and everyone in your neighborhood thought you were a celebrity.”
The tradition continues February 22-24, 2019, when the Society hosts its annual Camellia Festival at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, showcasing blooms from premier growers across the region and educating seasoned and aspiring growers alike.
Year-round, Savannah’s love of camellias is alive and well at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, which celebrates its centennial in 2019. Visitors enjoy nearly 1,000 varieties of camellia on the stunning Judge Arthur Solomon Camellia Trail, built by members of the Camellia Society in 2017. With the hum of Highway 17’s hustle in the distance, the tranquil foliage invites guests to unwind and experience the simple, timeless joy of admiring nature’s handiwork — a sentiment that would surely make “The Judge” himself proud.