In late February, myself and local plantsman Mike Chelednik, headed south for the mid-winter meeting of the Southeast Palm Society, being held at the American Camellia Society Headquarters at Massee Lane in Ft. Valley, Georgia. I had wanted to visit the camellia garden ever since I knew one existed, but the timing had never worked out. Mike, who goes by the social media moniker, “Mike See”, is one of the foremost camellia experts, as well as a hardy palm enthusiast.
Our first stop on the way to Ft. Valley was the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Gainesville, Georgia satellite garden, to check out the plant damage from their winter low temperatures of 5 degrees F. Although a number of plants in their trial fields were quite crispy, including most of the commercial cultivars of distyllum and even giant plants of Osmanthus heterophyllus, there were an amazing number of new plants from their recent Asian plant exploration trips that sailed through the cold.
I was particularly excited to see that a collection of the giant Begonia sillitensis from India sailed though the cold and looked ready to start growing. It was also great to see how well their large specimen of the Taiwanese aralia relative, Sinopanax formosanus, sailed through the winter. I had seen this in the wild several years earlier and felt it had a good shot at surviving in central NC.
I was especially glad to see that their amazing, conical clone of the hardy cinnamon tree, Cinnamon japonicum sailed through the low temperatures without any damage.
Their greenhouse was full of new treasures yet to go in the ground, including this Vietnamese collection of Sauromatum venosum. Virtually all of the material in the trade currently is from India, so these new genetics are quite exciting. Of course, there is always the possibility that this constitutes a newly discovered species. The velvety leaf surface makes me fairly confident this may be new. We are very fortunate to be a trial site for many of their amazing collections.
From ABG, we headed south through the highway insanity that constitutes the drive through Atlanta and south toward Macon, GA. There simply aren’t enough lanes to handle the mass of vehicles that travel this route–something you would think highway department officials would have noticed by now.
I was quite unprepared for the facilities at Massee Lane Gardens, since plant society headquarters are pretty much an extinct dinosaur of bygone eras. In this case, the Ft. Valley headquarters located in this former peach shipping hub of South Georgia, was a well-funded throwback to earlier generations. Started in the 1930s by pecan farmer, David Strother, the 160 acre property still contains pecan orchards. In 1966, Strother donated the property to the American Camellia Society.
The rectilinear facility has a “dripping with money” elegance, at odds with most of the surrounding tired town. Entering through the gift shop, a right turn takes you into the Annabelle Lundy Fetterman Educational Museum, a meeting room/display museum, which houses an absurdly extensive collection of Boehm porcelain. This room is named after the NC camellia aficionado of the same name. The late Annabelle Fetterman was the renown businesswoman CEO/owner of Clinton NC’s Lundy Packing Company.
Taking a left from the gift shop, routes you toward the lovely auditorium, where we would hold our Palm Society meeting.
About 35-40 palm nuts showed up for the SPS meeting, with several like us, driving in from 5-10 hours away. I’ve been a member of this amazing, but loose knit organization, for over 3 decades, although I think this is the first meeting I’ve attended that wasn’t held at our own Raleigh garden. We were treated to a fascinating talk by Rick Davis, on growing Cocoid palms in upstate SC. These include the jelly palms of the genus, Butia, and their hybrids. I think we all left the meeting, knowing there are far more palms we need to try in Zone 7.
Following the meeting, there was a rare palm auction thanks to member donations, followed by a tour of the Massee Lane gardens by Garden Manager, William Khoury. William and his staff of one assistant, manage and curate the entire camellia garden, which covers over 6 of the 160+ acre property. We’re sending good thoughts that they get more help to manage this extensive collection.
The garden is almost exclusively camellias, planted in large beds, with easily navigable paths winding visitors through the plantings.
While 99% of the visitors head to the garden section containing the show camellias and their hybrids, I headed to the virtually empty section devoted to wild camellia species, almost all of which were a gift from the late Dr. Clifford Parks of Chapel Hill, NC, just prior to his death. It was an interesting study, since they dropped to 12 degrees F. this winter…only a single degree higher than Raleigh, NC.
Camellia species other than Camellia japonica, Camellia sassanqua, Camellia reticulata, and Camellia sinensis, are virtually unknown by US gardeners. While not nearly as showy as the fancy hybrids, many of these plants have amazing foliage and forms, with most worthy of garden inclusion.
For the first several hours, I had the species collections to myself, until after an on-site food truck lunch, I heard a female voice recording a soliloquy about species camellias as the figure slowly sauntered from plant to plant. As I peered through the thicket, the voice was coming from none other than our NC neighbor and former PDNer, Brie Arthur of Brie Grows, who was in the area, recording a camellia segment for her Youtube channel.
By late afternoon, I had finished studying the species, and made my way over to the show camellia garden. Much of Massee Lane is devoted to camellias that are grown for flower show bloom competitions/displays. Below are a few photos from the acres of mostly well-labeled plants. There are certainly few better gardens in the southeast US to see this many camellias (over 1,000 plants) and make notes of which you’d like for your own garden. There was even a sales area devoted to some rather new and hard to find hybrids.
Heading back north toward home, we made one stop at the garden of Atlanta area plant collector, Ozzie Johnson, who maintains a large collection of mostly Asian plants at his extensive garden. As we saw at Atlanta Botanical Garden, there was extensive damage due to the single digit F low temperatures in December.
A huge specimen of Aucuba omeiensis was quite fried and we were unable to determine yet if it might possibly resprout.
The original plant of Ozzie’s introduction, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, also was completely defoliated, although it appeared like it would resprout.
Another of Ozzie’s introductions, the weeping Japanese maple, Acer palmatum ‘Ryusen’ was untouched. The photo is of the original plant from which all others have been propagated.
Despite most of the commercial selections of Distylum being fried, it was great to see this variegated selection of Distyllum myriocoides untouched after 5 degrees F.
I hope you’ve enjoyed traveling along with us!