Southern beauty thriving

Camellias find life in colder gardens farther north with help from a horticulturist

In The Region


Long after William L. Ackerman fell in love with camellias during his horticulture career at the National Arboretum in Washington, the retired botanist is still searching for new ways to make the showy flower grow farther north.

"I don't grow Southern [camellia] belles, " the 82-year-old said. "My objective is cold-hardiness."

The ancient shrub, Camellia sinensis, is native to China and is known for leaves used in making green and black tea. But Ackerman is more interested in the looks of camellias - and proving they can bloom in colder climates such as the Mid-Atlantic region and coastal New England.

And on a recent afternoon - right by the South River in Anne Arundel County, Ackerman gave a camellia lesson to a group of fellow gardeners. Years ago, he planted 110 of his own hybrid camellia seedlings at the scenic spot in Edgewater. These cross-pollinations (or "crosses" in garden shorthand) are part of his life's work and were based on the hardy oleifera strain.

"As a general rule, one outstanding plant - one worthy of naming - out of 500 seedlings is pretty good," he told the group walking in the woodlands in Historic London Town and Gardens.

As he spoke, Ackerman was surrounded by a camellia collection he created and cultivated after embarking on his London Town field trial in 1982. The profusion of autumn blossoms there now, he said, is living testimony that some camellias are dependably cold-resistant. Some might even be in bloom next month or January, depending on the severity of the winter.

Beating his own odds, Ackerman said three of the original 110 seedlings combined cold-hardiness and nice blooms, earning the right to be named and introduced into the nursery trade: the snow-white Winter's Hope, the London Town Blush and the spring-bloomer, London Town, with a deep pink peony-like flower.

Catherine Umphrey, director of horticulture at London Town, a former Colonial settlement and tobacco port with archaeological value, said Ackerman's fascination and work with sturdy camellias has cut against commonly accepted notions.

Traditionally, she and Ackerman said, the lush, rose-like buds were considered a charm of Southern gardens, associated with the weather in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Norfolk, Va., was once seen as the upper northern limit for camellias.

"Southerners like to think of camellias as their own," Umphrey said. "In the deep South, some don't like Yankees to grow them, even though [in Maryland] we're south of the Mason-Dixon line."

The collaboration between London Town and Ackerman, who lives in Ashton with his wife, Kitty, has been fruitful, but a fairly well-kept secret. To help change that, Umphrey said, she would like to make a fall camellia festival an annual public event.

Donna Ware, executive director of London Town, was also one of the listeners on the walkthrough, along with a number of London Town volunteers.

"Dr. Ackerman has a fond place in his heart for London Town, and I think that's because they [camellias] have been so successful and thrived here," Ware said.

"He's a pioneer and the master of this important collection, and it's a joy to showcase his work," she said.

Ackerman also departs from conventional wisdom on how to present camellias, which gardeners are apt to prune into round or oval forms. Instead, he likes to see them run a bit wild in nature.

"I have a different philosophy. I don't believe in manicuring plants," he told the group.

The creator of 75 camellia hybrids, some in Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, the former National Arboretum research horticulturist authored a 2002 volume, Growing Camellias in Cold Climates, which advised gardeners to plant in the spring and avoid fall.

Like others on the walk, Connie MacDonald said the sight of fresh blooms was welcome this time of year.

"Suddenly you fall in love," she said. "Now I have to have some camellias."

Then the sound of the bell announced it was time for tea in London Town.

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