Note: Judge Solomon was one of America’s foremost camellia pioneers, and his garden in Savannah contained one of the finest private collection ever assembled in this country. Even though he traveled the world in search of the perfect camellias, he shared everything he had with his friends. His generosity and spirit of sharing is what made Judge Solomon such a legend in the camellia world. This article that he wrote many years ago details just how much he loved his camellias and how far he would go to improve his camellia collection.
When only a youngster, in and around Savannah, I was more or less familiar with japonicas, as we knew them in those days, but we didn’t know anything about varieties; they were usually the imbricated type (Alba Plena), or the regularly formed Sarah Frost, and, of course, the usual pink with some variegated ones. However, my hankering for a garden came from my English parents, who continually told us of the many beautiful things grown in England and about the gardens there, saying there were none like them in America. I was enthused by these glowing accounts of what they had across the sea, and made up my mind to have a garden and a hobby (flowering evergreens) so that my home would look just as beautiful in midwinter as at any other time of the year. So naturally Camellia Japonica – the only midwinter bloomer – became the background of the whole scheme of planting; and after spending three or four years clearing up the grounds and making a definite layout of what I wanted, I had the good fortune to have the advice of Mr. P.J. Berckmans, of Augusta, who told two of his friends, Mr. Meehan of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and Mr. Dreer of Philadelphia, what I was hoping to accomplish at Savannah. These two gentlemen came to see me and offered their assistance in procuring for me the original plants that I set out at Wellesley Manor.
I looked all over the country to find an unimproved place which I could landscape to suit my ideas: on the water – with many trees– not too far from the city – paved road – and good drainage. So I was quite fortunate when I located twenty-seven acres at Grimball’s Point, which had most everything I was looking for, including both shade from the large oaks and pine groves for the camellias.
The camellia planting was started with fifty varieties from France in March, 1914, and to these have been added numerous plants whenever I thought I could pick up good ones. Some were located in rural places in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, but most of them were purchased through the different nurseries. Whenever I saw an outstanding flower I made arrangements to buy a couple of plants, thinking one might die and I would always have one left.
In 1936, I built a greenhouse so that I would have blooms untouched by freeze, frost, or rain, but I never grew a single plant in the greenhouse. They are moved out right after blooming and moved in again about November 15 each year.
In 1937, Mrs. Solomon and I toured the Chateau district of France and took in the principal cities of Tours, Angiers, and our real destination, Nantes, and the Guichard Soers Nurseries there, with whom I had a great deal of correspondence regarding the purchase of two hundred bushes. We reached there about the middle of June, and with the aid of an English interpreter whom we brought along with us, I was able to make selections of the two hundred plants which I wanted. These plants were to be shipped to me at Cherbourg in the early part of August, in order to meet the S.S. Queen Mary from Southhampton.
Prior to my departure from Savannah I had shipped to the Queen Mary a box of Florida peat moss and asked them to have it aboard boat so that we would have it upon our return from England, which they did. The reason for this was that Embargo No. 37 was then in effect, and you could not bring any plant from abroad with any foreign soil on the roots. The Department of Entomology at Washington permitted me to keep the French soil on the plants until we were within three miles of the United States.
When we reached Cherbourg in August there were three big cases, much larger than I had anticipated, and the plants delivered were also larger than I had intended to purchase. I had asked for two – to three-year-old plants but what I received were four – to five-year-old ones, with roots heavily cut back, and, of course, an additional charge for the size. The nursery also charged me more than was originally agreed upon because they said that I was a “collector” and not a “dealer” or “nurseryman”. I presume I should have paid them what I had agreed to in the beginning, but after some correspondence back and forth, I sent them a check in full to get rid of the matter.
After the three boxes of plants were placed in the hold of the S.S. Queen Mary, I proceeded to unpack them. Fortunately I was able to obtain the services of the gardener aboard ship, who procured for me the services of two seamen. But even on a ship as large as the Queen Mary, there was not too much fresh water for any purpose: however, we did enough to comply with the government’s request, but it was a tedious job. It is only four and one-half days from Cherbourg to New York, and much to the disgust of my better half, I spent two and one-half days of this time in the hold, washing the French mud off these plants. When I came to our rooms in the evening for dinner my wife didn’t like the idea of my passing through the ship in borrowed, ill-fitting overalls, but a camellia fancier will do almost anything, wife or no wife.
By the time we arrived at New York the boxes were all repacked in Florida peat moss and ready for inspection. They were given the once-over, not very thoroughly, but it was a different story when they reached Washington! There each plant was unpacked, and while I have no idea what they were treated with, I felt sure they were immune from any pests regardless of what country they had inhabited because the heavy fishing line with which they were tied when I received them popped like paper twine in my hands. Now, I don’t blame the government for taking these precautions, as I would have hated it very much if I had brought into my garden some foreign disease that would give future trouble.
Out of the two hundred plants only about forty lived, but that was a better proportion than the hundred one-year-old grafts which I purchased in Ghent, Belgium, from Victor de Bisschop and also had delivered to me at Southampton, none of which survived.
In 1939, I imported seventy-five bushes from Kobe, Japan. These were sent on a ship sailing from Kobe that I was to meet at Portland, Oregon, but when the ship arrived there were no plants aboard. I could not wait for the next ship, so I had the government fumigate them in Portland and send them by fast express direct to Savannah, and of this group only about ten are alive. (Too long a boat trip, with bare roots.) These proved to be very interesting plants, however, as the government had washed all the soil from them, giving me excellent opportunity to see how the Japanese had prepared their plants for quick growth, every one of which was inarched. These remaining plants did not make any phenomenal growth but they turned out to be sturdy bushes because they were very small when received.
I am convinced now that it does not pay to buy plants abroad: the risk is too great and the proportion that lives is too small. Then again, we now have many new varieties coming on, since the bushes in America are getting old enough to throw out quantities of seed, and from these seeds we are getting an enormous variety of blooms that are being placed on the market.
In Italy, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, the camellias grow very tall: those that I saw were mostly seedlings, but some were 18 inches in diameter and 30 to 35 feet tall. From these old plants a great many seeds have been obtained and in Europe nearly all plants are side grafted on this seedling stock when it is only a year old.
Since the receipt of the last shipment from Japan, I have picked up a good many plants in different nurseries on the Pacific Coast, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and our two neighboring states have furnished me with other plants. So now I have a collection from which I hope to graft on my own seedlings to make the garden a worthwhile one for those interested in Camellia japonica.
Gene Phillips is one of the owners of Gene’s Nursery in Savannah, Ga. He is a 2nd generation grower and attributes his love of Camellias to his father, who inspired him to breath in the beauty that they bring to him but more importantly to others. In his ‘free’ time, you’ll find him wandering through old gardens, trying to identify flowers or taking countless number of photos to share with others! He also enjoys meeting people and comparing ‘garden’ stories.