Many thanks to Bill Ray for allowing us to share this Christmas Story on The Ingenious Gardener. Bill Ray is the Charles Dickens and Mark Twain of the Camellia World all rolled up into one. No one else can tell a camellia story like our good friend Bill. We hope you will enjoy this wonderful holiday memory and share it with your friends and family. We think it will bring many a smile to your face as it has done to ours for many years. Enjoy this wonderful story!
It was cold and damp this morning–almost raining–but not quite–and as I walked out the door, I smelled pine smoke–sweet and sticky in the air. The sky was as gray as the old slate roof on the L&N railroad depot down the street, and all of it made me think of Christmas and camellias. Not Christmas just past, but Christmas long past as the ghost said to Scrooge.
There was a time when a nice ‘canned’ japonica was a familiar Christmas gift in many southern communities. I don’t know if they ever gave them anywhere else, but here on the Gulf coast–you could almost always count on them.
I remember, many, many, Christmases ago, I was just a very small boy–but I must have been in elementary school: it was Christmas eve morning and I was home from school and the smell of baking and fresh fir tree hung over the house like a premonition of things to come. Living in a big, rambling, and on this particular morning, cold, Victorian house, we didn’t have an electric door bell–we had a twister bell–the handle held a knob on the outside and a bell on the inside and when the knob was twisted the bell rang–making a sound audible anywhere up to 2 feet from the door.
But, I heard the shrill ring, ring of the bell and I was down the big hallway like a shot–Christmas eve! it had
to be someone wonderful or something exciting……it was cold and just barely trying to rain and I had been confined to the house, so anyone would be exciting. Stay out of the way and you may have some cookies when they’re done……keep out of my way and we will go out and look at the Christmas lights after dark, etc, etc, promises, promises. IT’S CHRISTMAS!!!!! LET’S DO SOMETHING GRAND! I wanted to shout, but I was told to be patient, Christmas would be here soon enough.
but, I was not fooled, I knew that time had been suspended–that Christmas would never come that I was going to be stuck in the cold, dark, house watching daytime television–forever. and then the doorbell rang, and I ran to see……..and opened the big glass door just in time to see my uncle’s truck drive away from the curb. Odd? no one was coming in? and then I saw it, a big, big can standing on the porch next to the post closest to the door. The paper label was still intact : Schloss and Kahn SUNDAY DINNER Green Beans–and there was the familiar smiling boy and his family, heads bowed in prayers of thanksgiving. I knew these cans well–the ladies in the school lunchroom saved them daily for my aunt. My aunt Louise taught third grade and she took home the biggest cans each day for my uncle Don to wash out and use in his nursery business. The loft of my grandmother’s barn was full of these big tin cans. much smaller versions of the cans filled the cabinets in my mother’s kitchen…….but this big can was different. It had a tall plant with shiny green leaves growing in it. The leaves were beautiful, shiny and bright–as bright as any of the ornaments on the Christmas tree in the living room–and just as dark green as the fir tree itself.Being naturally curious about this beautiful gift that Don had just left on the porch without a word, I had to walk out into the cold crisp air and examine it. There was a Christmas card in an envelope in the top of the pot–and I recognized it immediately as coming from the owner of the shirt factory where both my parents worked. I picked up the card to carry inside and then I saw a huge red bloom blotched with white…..
Clutching the card, I rushed back into the house and headed for the kitchen and my mother. ‘Mama, Mama’, I blurted out–Unca Don was here and he left a big plant on the porch and it has a beautiful red and white flower growing on it! Here’s a card from Mr. G–it was in the pot and I brought it to you!’
Sighing wearily, m y mother wiped her hands on her apron and took the card–then with an even bigger sigh, she began ‘well, let’s go see what this is….’
turning the cor ner into the hall–all was forgotten, I had left the front door standing open, chilling the already chilly house even more. Progressing steadily toward the front door even while scolding me for leaving the door open and ‘freezing all of us to death’–mom was taken by surprise by the beauty waiting on the porch.
‘oh, MY’ she said as she took a deep breath–‘look at the beautiful camellia!’
I knew what camellias were–they were the huge bushes at the north end of the porch–the ones that were so perfect to climb in and which I had been strictly and absolutely forbidden to play on–under penalty of death by execution by my dad. There was red, Colonel somebody and a white, Alibi something and then there was a BIG Pink Perfection shaped like a Christmas tree………..but this Sunday Dinner canned plant didn’t look like any of those three: ‘Shan-de-lerey L-e-gans’ read my mother as knelt down and read the shiny little metal tag tied near the top of the pot…….. for once I was so hypnotized by the huge, delicate looking, red bloom that I was too in awe to reach out and touch it. ……..
I saw the sparkle in mom’s eyes and I knew that she was pleased–and as she stood up and dusted her hands again on that apron, she smiled broadly and ruffled my hair. The front door still was standing open, but no further scolding was given as she hurried me back inside and closed the door behind her: “let’s see if those cookies are cool enough for you to have one’ she said as she hurried me back to the kitchen and warmth.
‘But what about the Kamelya?’ I asked? and mom said, ‘let’s wait until you dad gets home and we will decide where to plant it. we need to plant it today because its going to drop way below freezing tonight’
And so began what became a Christmas ritual throughout most of my childhood: the Christmas camellia.
When dad came home in lat e afternoon, he quickly changed clothes and got out his old blue denim jacket–and had me bundled up like I was going out with Sergeant Preston and his sled dog, King–one of my favorite Television shows. Mom met us in the hallway and came out on the porch to point out exactly where to plant the beautiful plant with the beautiful bloom. Thus the Chandeleri’ Elegans came to anchor the south end of the big porch. Over the years it was joined by other japonicas and occasionally a sasanqua. Debutante, Purple Dawn, Rose Dawn, Marie Bracey, Sea Foam, joined the landscape as Christmases and my childhood rolled by.
But this first Christmas camellia, was an event to remember. I held the long bladed shovel that dad used to plant things while he used the post hole diggers to start a hole exactly where my mother had pointed……. and watched the hole become bigger and bigger and then watched dad breaking up the dirt clods into just loose dirt. He produced some bags of something from the garage and a bottle of something dark looking and foul smelling and then the roots of the plant was going into the hole. I was delegated to consign the now empty, sort of rusty, Sunday Dinner can into the garbage can as dad loosely spread the dirt into the hole and covered the base of the trunk and the ground Mom appeared on the porch to check the planting and location and once she had approved of our work, we were urged to put away the tools and rush inside: supper was waiting and we needed to hurry. As I scurried along taking the shovel to the garage, I saw my dad take out his pocket knife and cut off the beautiful bloom to take inside for my mother. Seeing my questioning look, Dad was quick to explain, ‘it would just freeze tonight if we don’t cut it’…………
As years went by, I learned about giving evergreens at Christmas and that camellias preferred to be planted in cold weather. That people who really ‘knew’ you were careful to always try and give you a camellia that they were certain was not already in your yard. That the size of the plant didn’t show anything about how much the giver thought of the recipient, but that the variety of the plant and the health of the leaves said volumes: a sort of secret code of what others thought you would appreciate.
And so, until my high school years, when camellias had sort of faded from the fashionable giving lists, the gift of a Christmas camellia and the ritual of planting it sometime over Christmas holidays became as much a part of Christmas as fir trees, candy canes and getting out the nativity set.
One thing though–no matter what day the camellia was planted it was cold–and it was long years before I learned that it did not have to be about to freeze for one to plant camellias–and to this day, I catch myself wondering, ‘ is it cold enough to plant camellias, today?’
Both my parents have gone on to that garden where flowers never fade–but I still live in the big, rambling, (and now much warmer) Victorian house and the now huge C. Elegans still anchors the south end of the porch–flanked by a Sea Foam and a Debutante. Never does Christmas come–and go–that I don’t think of my parents, my uncle and aunt, and that first Christmas camellia.
And I feel close to all of them once more, just remembering.
Thanks for letting me share a Christmas memory.
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.