A Half-Century of Camellias Find a New Home

By: Barbara Tuffli

Barbara Tuffli has had a life-long interest in gardens and a particular interest in camellias. Her own garden in Atherton,…

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Camellias in Marjorie O’Malley’s garden, dug, balled, and wrapped for the move to San Francisco Botanical Garden. Author’s photographs except as noted - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/a-half-century-of-camellias-find-a-new-home/#sthash.NFMsH7Ts.dpuf

Camellias in Marjorie O’Malley’s garden, dug, balled, and wrapped for the move to San Francisco Botanical Garden. Author’s photographs except as noted

The author wrote about Marjorie O’Malley’s camellia garden in the January 2005 issue of Pacific Horticulture. She returns to complete the story of Marjorie’s camellias as they take up residence in a new garden.

A tall Camellia reticulata being lifted by crane for placement on the flatbed truck

A tall Camellia reticulata being lifted by crane for placement on the flatbed truck

Marjorie O’Malley’s enchanting garden, where nearly three hundred magnificent camellias clothed the hills of her oak woodland in Woodside, California, was extraordinary in its beauty. It also represented a half-century of thoughtful effort and systematic collection as, each year, Marge added new camellia introductions from the renowned Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altadena, California, to her ever-expanding garden. Marge actually started her camellia collection in Southern California, and the Nuccios moved her camellias to Woodside in 1969, planting them for her in their new home.

Camellias loaded on the flatbed truck for the drive to San Francisco; note the flowers poking through the canvas wrap

Camellias loaded on the flatbed truck for the drive to San Francisco; note the flowers poking through the canvas wrap

Marge passed away in January 2004 and the property was sold under a prior arrangement. The new owner generously allowed the garden to be open one last time in March of that year for a previously scheduled San Francisco Peninsula Camellia Society (SFPCS) garden tour. The proceeds of that tour were to be used to create a new camellia species garden for the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum (SFBG), in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Foreman Andres Elias and the talented crew of diggers from William Chiappa Fields, Portland, Oregon - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/a-half-century-of-camellias-find-a-new-home/#sthash.NFMsH7Ts.dpuf

Foreman Andres Elias and the talented crew of diggers from William Chiappa Fields, Portland, Oregon

Shortly thereafter, Marge’s property changed hands a second time. The newest owners, Bill and Sonja Davidow, had other plans for the property, and began looking for a new home for the garden’s camellias. Their hope was to donate the camellia collection, in Marjorie’s memory, to a public garden, so that everyone would be able to enjoy and learn from her beloved plants.

Questions followed in rapid succession: Could camellias of this age and size (some over fifteen feet tall) be safely moved, and, if so, at what time of year? What botanical garden would be most suitable and have the space for them? Who would carry out the move? How would it be executed? Would the plants be dug by hand, or would tree spades be used? Would cranes be necessary? How did access in each location limit the choices? What would it cost? Who would pay for the project? With the help of a number of talented and enthusiastic individuals, these questions were answered, a new home found, plants moved, and a grand new public camellia garden created.

Pink flowers of Camellia 'Glenn's Orbit' (above) and C. xifongensis (below) frame a view from the new Camellia Species Garden into the long-established Moon Viewing Garden. Photograph by RGT - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/a-half-century-of-camellias-find-a-new-home/#sthash.NFMsH7Ts.dpuf

Pink flowers of Camellia ‘Glenn’s Orbit’ (above) and C. xifongensis (below) frame a view from the new Camellia Species Garden into the long-established Moon Viewing Garden. Photograph by RGT

A New Home

To move a collection of this age and size, we needed to find a location for the camellias in a relatively similar microclimate, to minimize any post-transplant stress to the plants. This narrowed our options. San Francisco was a distinct possibility, as the climate there is a bit more moderate than that of Woodside; plants might not be overly stressed during their first year in a new San Francisco home. Scot Medbury, then executive director of San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, indicated that he would be interested in adding Marge’s camellias to the garden’s existing collection, and could accommodate the vast majority of them. We knew that experienced horticulturists and arborists could move plants of this size, but we needed to find the right person. Peter Good, a landscape contractor who was already doing work at SFBG, was selected to do the job. He pulled together a team of experts, including tree movers and a crew of experienced diggers from Oregon, to dig each plant by hand, rather than resorting to a mechanical tree spade. The Davidows agreed to care for the plants over the summer so they could be moved in the fall 2004 or early winter 2005, when the camellias would be dormant (camellias are actually dormant when in bloom). They also offered, in an act of enormous generosity, to cover the high costs of having trained professionals brought in to move the plants, further assuring the success of the project.

Camellia tunghinensis. Photograph by Gene Phillips

Camellia tunghinensis. Photograph by Gene Phillips

A proposal was made to develop a camellia garden for San Francisco Botanical Garden that was both beautiful and educational. Complementing a new collection of camellia species, which had already been donated by SFPCS, the plants from Marge’s collection could be used as examples of fifty years of hybridization. Thus, visitors to the camellia garden could partake of a multilevel experience, ranging from the simple enjoyment of these magnificent plants with their glorious flowers, to understanding the science of hybridization and the results of interspecific crosses. In addition, the new garden would be embellished with companion plants native to China, to educate the public on suitable plants to combine with camellias in their own gardens.

Camellia oleifera. Photograph by Gene Phillips

Camellia oleifera. Photograph by Gene Phillips

Led by Scot Medbury, a group of us interested in the project met at SFBG to consider the proposed plan and possible locations. The oldest part of the arboretum, just across from the Moon Viewing Garden, became the top choice for the Camellia Species Garden. This area, in need of renovation, was already the home of a number of mature camellias along with magnificent specimens of Magnolia campbellii and other plants native to Asia. Adding camellia species and some of the choicest of Marge’s hybrids was the obvious solution.

Additional hybrids would be sparingly added to the camellias already growing in the adjacent Moon Viewing and Zellerbach gardens, creating a natural flow from garden room to garden room. Jonathan Plant, a landscape architect from the Napa Valley who is known for his work with camellias and had previously done work at SFBG, generously donated his services to design the new camellia garden.

A Half-Century of Camellias Find a New Home / 5 Flower and foliage of Camellia assimilis. Photograph by Gene Phillips - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/a-half-century-of-camellias-find-a-new-home/#sthash.lgzA4KvW.dpuf

Flower and foliage of Camellia assimilis. Photograph by Gene Phillips

The balance of the collection intended for SFBG would be planted in two locations: along the perimeter sidewalk running from the main gate to the Friend Gate on the north side of the botanical garden, so that people walking by and those accessing the park’s nearby underground parking garage could appreciate their midwinter beauty; and along the path connecting the botanical garden’s staff parking lot with the nursery, to brighten the predominantly green hillside with camellia blossoms.

Stanford University had also indicated an interest in some of Marjorie’s camellias, so a decision was made to plant a group of them near the Memorial Chapel on the Stanford campus.

Camellia ‘Shanghai Lady’

Camellia ‘Shanghai Lady’

The camellia species collection that was to form the nucleus of the new garden at SFBG included over thirty specimens from Marge’s garden and from Nuccio’s Nursery. We involved the Nuccios early on, as they have one of the largest species collections on the West Coast. In addition to the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and C. oleifera, from which tea oil is made, the new collection includes unusual species such as C. assimilis, the bright yellow C. nitidissima, the narrow-leafed C. salicifolia, C. mitagii, and C. tunghinensis.

As interesting as these rarities might be, the most intriguing aspect of the new garden, for some, will be the opportunity to see, firsthand, the results of hybridization. In the new garden, visitors will be able to enjoy Marge’s ‘Snow Drop’ along with its two parents (C. pitardii and C. fraterna). They will also see ‘Dr Clifford Parks’ (C. reticulata ‘Crimson Robe’ × C. japonica ‘Kramer’s Supreme’), ‘LASCA Beauty’ (C. reticulata ‘Cornelian’  × C. japonica ‘Mrs DW Davis’), and Marge’s namesake, ‘Marjorie O’Malley’ (C. reticulata ‘Crimson Robe’ × C. ‘Jean Pursel’). This will offer a fascinating opportunity to study the similarities and differences between progeny and their parents.

A Carefully Choreographed Move

The process of moving the nearly three hundred plants was choreographed to minimize the time that the camellias would be out of the ground. The first step involved cataloging and tagging all of the plants to be moved. Members of the SFPCS teamed up to record each plant’s name, size, and location in Marge’s garden. We also recorded whether the plant had been growing in sun or shade, since we hoped to locate each plant in the new garden in conditions similar to what it had experienced in Woodside. We numbered each plant so we could keep track of it once out of the ground. We then tagged each plant for either SFBG or Stanford; if SFBG, we noted to which of three staging areas it should be delivered. Design and planting decisions had to be made in advance about some of the largest specimens because access was restricted in parts of the botanical garden; cranes that would be necessary to drop the largest specimens into place could not be used on some of the paths.

In mid-January 2005, the work began on the big move. The contractor sprayed the foliage of all the camellias with an anti-transpirant to minimize moisture loss. He also drenched the soil with SuperThrive to minimize transplant shock. The next day, the Portland team began digging the camellias. This went relatively quickly with a crew digging each plant, tying the root ball with twine, wrapping it in burlap, and then tying the ball a second time around the burlap. As the plants were finished, they were moved by bulldozer to the driveway, which was used as a departure staging area. Huge covered trucks were brought in for a majority of the camellias. A crane loaded the flatbed trucks that were used to transport the largest specimens. Once loaded, the flatbed trucks were covered with shade cloth to protect the plants while in transit to San Francisco, a distance of about thirty miles.

Once at SFBG, workers watered the rootballs and disbudded each newly arrived camellia, so that all of the plant’s energy would go into surviving the transplanting process rather than producing flowers in the current season. Locations were flagged for the plants in the new garden. Crews dug new holes by hand and worked feverishly to replant the camellias as rapidly as possible. Using forklifts and cranes, the camellias were transported from the staging areas and carefully tucked into their new holes. Finally, they were watered in and mulched with bark. This entire project, from digging to final planting, took just four weeks, a remarkably short time considering the number of plants and their size.

Camellia salicifolia. Photograph by Gene Phillips

Camellia salicifolia. Photograph by Gene Phillips

The final phase, completed later in the year, was to install a path system and add companion plants native to Asia. Among the ground covering plants are Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), and Bergenia species. Flowering herbaceous perennials include Corydalis flexuosa ‘China Blue’, Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), Incarvillea arguta, and garden hybrid hellebores (Helleborus ×hybridus). We hope visitors will be inspired to create their own camellia gardens with some of these attractive companion plants.

This was a unique public/private/non-profit partnership, blessed with a fortunate convergence of philanthropy that enabled the project to succeed. Formed in a short period of time, out of a need to quickly find a new home for an extraordinary camellia collection, this group, composed of the staff of SFBG, the Davidows, Peter Good, Jonathan Plant, and members of the SFPCS, made it possible to preserve one of the most noteworthy camellia collections in Northern California. Marjorie O’Malley would be delighted to know that tens of thousands of visitors coming every year to SFBG and Stanford University will continue to enjoy and learn from the camellias that had been her life’s passion.

Three years later, wandering the paths of SFBG and enjoying the camellias as the new collection blends seamlessly into the existing landscape, I find it increasingly difficult to tell which camellias were added and which have been there for decades.