David Lauderdale

Lowcountry's love affair with the camellia blossoms anew

A camellia plant blossoms in the Camellia Garden at Honey Horn on Tuesday.
A camellia plant blossoms in the Camellia Garden at Honey Horn on Tuesday. Jay Karr, Staff photo

While others chisel at snow, Lowcountry life comes into full bloom at this time of year.

A wild palette of camellia blooms grace our yards in the heart of winter.

The ancient plant that the Chinese used to make tea came to America as an ornamental more than 200 years ago.

And like so many of us, one trip to the Lowcountry and the camellia fell in love. It loves our live oaks that filter the sun, gentle breezes and warm temperatures.

They were originally planted for love in the Lowcountry. More than 150 years ago, the Rev. John Grimkè Drayton hoped they would keep his Philadelphia bride happy on Magnolia Plantation near Charleston.

Since then, the camellia has touched society in many ways. The Beaufort Garden Club has hosted many camellia shows through the years. Hilton Head Island named its mid-winter sectional bridge tournament the Camellia Classic. This weekend, the Coastal Carolina Camellia Society will host its 64th annual show in Charleston. And at the Rev. Drayton's Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, the public can walk among the largest camellia collection in the United States.

On Hilton Head, a new camellia garden that is free and open to the public blooms in an almost worshipful setting.

The garden is a gift to the community by an island couple who fell in love with the camellia when they moved here 12 years ago. After putting in about 30 plants at home, Fred and Donna Manske created, funded, designed and planted a camellia garden at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn, where he once served on the board.

It has 120 plants, each a different variety, and each with a different story. They were selected for differences -- some bloom early, some late; some blooms are as big as saucers, others the size of a fingernail; some are antiques, others are new. And they are of many colors. Differences in the evergreen leaves add variety, even when they're not in bloom.

In the fall of 2009, museum volunteers and friends helped put in the three-gallon plants along a curving walkway between the Mary Ann Peeples Pavilion and the old cemetery. Eagle Scout Cash Knight of Bluffton helped install part of the path. Drip irrigation nurtures the camellias, which will grow much larger beneath the weeping live oaks.

"Honey Horn is known for the environment, history and culture," said Donna, "and Fred and I think this hits all three."

Fred, who once was in charge of ground operations and then international operations for FedEx, now tends each camellia plant as if it were a child.

"It's a very spiritual place," Donna said. "It's good for you. People can come here and lay their troubles down. They can think and observe beauty."

And in the far reaches of the garden they can discover its grandest prize -- an Alba Plena camellia. Each bloom bursts with 200 white petals, just as they did in the garden that the Rev. Drayton planted for love.

Related content

  1. Coastal Discovery Museum
  2. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens