All across the country, Florida is known as the vacation capital of America. From Disney World to Sea World, people travel from destinations near and far to experience these wonderful attractions . Just a little south of Gainesville, is the small city of Ocala. It is famous around the world for its many horse ranches. If you are a veterinarian, then Ocala is the place that you want to be at. Just off the beaten path in Ocala was another attraction that few people around America were aware of. It was the garden of Lillian and Clarence Gordy, but I called it Heaven on Earth. If you were one of the lucky people that had been fortunate enough to have visited this garden, then you know exactly what I mean.
The first time that I met the Gordys was a number of years ago when we put on a camellia show in Savannah. I invited them to come up, because I noticed that they were winning just about every camellia show in the south. Not only did they come to the show, but they quickly became some of the camellia growers and showers that I admired the most. Most camellia show-ers in the south are well aware of the reputation that they had when they were participating in ACS camellia shows. For those of you that have not heard about them, let me introduce you to some of the finest people that you could ever have hoped to meet.
First, let’s get the names straight. Lillian Gordy was simply Lillian, or Miss Lillian to some. Gordy was simply Gordy, and I mean that quite literally. If you called him Clarence, he would probably look at you funny until you said “Oh, I mean Gordy”. Both were originally from Mississippi. They met when both were working for the local Agriculture Group in Greenville, Mississippi. Later, they moved to the Washington, D.C. area, and finally retired and moved to Ocala, Florida. After knowing them for so many years, I had assumed that they had been growing camellias their whole life, but the truth is that they did not start this hobby until after they retired and moved to Ocala. Gordy said that when they moved to Florida, they bought a small lot and needed to do some landscaping, so he stopped by a nursery and started talking to the nurseryman about this and that plant. The guy told them that if he really wanted to see a plant that was something special, he needed to go to a local nursery called Old South Nursery and talk to the owner Jim Smith about camellias. The next thing you know, Gordy was at Old South Nursery discovering the most beautiful flowering ornamentals in the world.
Gordy said that he and Jim Smith hit it off right from the start. Both of them were old school teachers, so they had something in common. It was not too long before Gordy was working part time for Jim at Old South Nursery. It turned out to be a good arrangement for both of them. Jim had someone that he could depend on to do his spraying, pruning, and help with irrigation. Gordy got an opportunity to learn about these camellias that he had fallen in love with, and it was such a love affair that Gordy even took his salary in camellias. Some people work for food, but Gordy just worked for camellias. Gordy and Lillian soon realized that their ¼ acre lot was just not going to be large enough to sustain their new hobby, so they looked around until they found a larger parcel of property where they could make the garden of their dreams. Gordy told me that one day Jim was cleaning out his plants and removing some that were too small or not doing as well. Jim would normally have just thrown these plants away, but Gordy took them to his new garden to plant. It ended up amounting to 3 pickup truck loads of camellias packed in as tightly as you can imagine. This was back in 1986, and was the first large planting of camellias in their garden. I was amused as Gordy described planting all of these discarded camellias with post hole diggers. I guess that it just shows that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
It was not very long before Lillian and Gordy were obsessed with this new passion they had discovered. They decided that they wanted to have at least one plant of every variety that existed. After learning that there were over 30,000 different camellias in the world, they revised their plan to get at least one plant of every variety that Jim Smith was selling. At that time, Jim was growing over ninety varieties. It was not long afterwards that Gordy learned to graft camellias. With this skill, he could get a cutting or a scion of a variety that the wanted and graft it onto a camellia that he already had growing in the garden. Lillian said that over the years Gordy had grafted something on all of those original plants that they had gotten from Jim Smith. Gordy did all his grafting in the ground. Gordy said that the last time that he attempted to graft on camellias in containers, he grafted 20 and lost 19, so he decided that he would have better luck grafting on plants growing in the ground.
One thing that Gordy was famous for in the camellia world was in variegating camellias through grafting. For those of you that are not familiar with this subject, it involves spreading a virus that causes flowers to have white blotches in them. If you graft a solid colored flower onto a virus infected or variegated rootstock, you should find that the virus spreads into the newly grafted part and causes your solid colored flower to become variegated or have white blotches in it. In the established camellia world, the more white that shows up in the variegation, the better. Gordy had become an expert in accomplishing this objective. I asked him what his secret was in variegating camellias. He said that the best rootstock to use in variegating camellias is ‘Shibori Egao’. Also, he said that many varieties of Camellia reticulata and its hybrids will eventually lose much of their variegation, so he always had to make new grafts to maintain his highly variegated strains.
One of the things that I especially appreciated about both Lillian and Gordy was their desire to share their camellias with just about everyone that wanted to come for a visit. Lillian said that they had Garden Clubs that just loved to tour the garden. Also, they had always made it a habit to share cuttings and knowledge with any and every one. Gordy said that when they first got started with camellias, they wanted to learn everything that they could. One day, they went to a camellia show in Jacksonville. He said they carried one bloom of ‘Star Above Star’ and entered it in the show. Not surprisingly, it won a blue ribbon, and they were hooked on camellia shows. While they were at the show, they saw many varieties that they liked and wanted to obtain. They wrote down the names of these varieties and the people that had entered them in the show. When they contacted these people, they found that their new friends were more than willing to share scions or cuttings of these camellia varieties.
It was not long before Lillian and Gordy were starting to attend camellia shows everywhere. They became novice judges and started learning about the art of showing camellias. Gordy said that they especially enjoyed sitting down with some of the best growers and show-ers and listening to what they shared with them. One of his early mentors was the late Jim Pinkerton from South Carolina. One piece of advice that Jim Pinkerton gave them was that if they really wanted to win shows, they needed to determine which varieties were winning most shows, and then they needed to get at least 10 plants of each of these varieties. They took his advice seriously and got 10 plants of about 20 varieties that were winning most of the camellia shows that they were attending. It was not long before the Gordys were the ones to beat. Lillian said that they always worked as a team. Gordy would grow them and Lillian would show them. It took both disciplines to help them win awards at the camellia shows. Everything that is good always comes with a price.
The Gordys were quickly becoming the ones that won most shows in their area, and Gordy said that it made him feel bad about it. He felt that they had an advantage over many of the others because they had so many more plants and varieties. I can remember my early experiences in camellia shows where the Gordys were participating. I always looked forward to the showdown between the Gordys and another great grower from South Carolina named Parker Connor. Time catches up to everyone, and eventually, Lillian and Gordy and Parker had to stop showing their camellias. After these great camellia show-ers retired, I don’t think that it will ever be the same again.
After Lillian and Gordy retired from showing camellias, they began to concentrate on collecting them. They still wanted to have at least one plant of every variety that they could find, and they were always received cuttings or scions from other growers across the country and the world. I asked them to tell me what their favorite 10 camellias would be. They both agreed that the list would change on a daily basis, but on the day that I visited, their favorite 10 camellias would be as follows and in no particular order:
- ‘Valentine Day Variegated’
- ‘Frank Houser’ or ‘Frank Houser Variegated’
- ‘Miss Tulare’
- ‘Margaret Davis Picotee’
- ‘Dawn’s Early Light’
- ‘Royal Velvet’
- ‘Miss Lillian’
- ‘Betty Ridley Variegated’
- ‘Cile Mitchel’
They had many people that have greatly influenced them over the years as they were learning about camellias. Jim Smith, Jim Pinkerton, Hulyn Smith, Jerry Conrad, Marvin Jernigan, Ivan Mitchell, and Fred Hahn were just a few of the many growers that helped them to perfect their craft over the years. They made it their business to share with others in the same way that all of their wonderful friends shared with them.
In 2007, they had over 1000 different varieties growing in their garden in Ocala. They grew their own rootstock along with many seedlings as well. Seedlings became a new found passion for both Lillian and Gordy. Their goal was to develop many great varieties that could be grown from cuttings and not have to be grafted. Lillian described these easy to propagate and grow camellia varieties as the “common man’s camellias”. They introduced many new varieties over the years. ‘Pretty Lady’, ‘Miss Lillian’, and ‘Pink Chiffon’ are just a few of their varieties. One of the best new varieties of recent times is their ‘Early Autumn’. It is an outstanding flower and a great landscape plant.
I wish that I had unlimited space to continue telling you more about Lillian and Gordy. There are still so many more stories that could be told. The one thing that I would like to say from a personal standpoint is how wonderful these two great camellia growers were as people. They really were the salt of the earth. I have been around camellias my entire life. I have seen many great camellia gardens all over this country, but I have to say that the Gordy Garden off the beaten path in Ocala Florida was the very best camellia garden that I had ever seen. If there is truly a Heaven of Earth, it was hidden away in the middle of horse country in Central Florida and was taken care of by two of the best gardeners that I had ever met.
In 2010 and 2011, I had the pleasure of staying with them for several days each visit. I took 5 cuttings from as many different camellias in their garden as possible and brought them back to Savannah to root. Most of the cuttings rooted, and today I have a large number of the Gordy Collection including many of their seedlings. Gordy passed away a few years ago, and Lillian went on to join him in 2015. Their lives were lives well lived by caring and sharing their passion with all that were interested. I hope to plant many of the camellias that came from their garden in a garden of my own one day. I am sure that they are in a far grander camellia garden today, but I will always love and treasure the memories of them and their beautiful garden!
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.