I have written here that our town of Traveler’s Joy* is too prosaic to be quaint, too down-at-heel to be appealing. I should have noted the exceptions to that rule, the most impressive one being the homestead of my close neighbor, Mr. S, which has been tended thoughtfully and meticulously for over forty years.
|Steve S. on the porch of his house in Traveler's Joy.* Blue porch ceilings are a Charleston tradition -- they're believed to keep insects and "haints" (ghosts) at bay.|
Steve S. belongs to the second category of residents in this Piedmont village: he married someone who was born here. Unlike some ‘newcomers,’ however, Steve’s upstate roots run as deep as his late wife M.’s, and he can claim a mill-town lineage as humble and hardworking as the best of them.
I admired Steve’s garden for some time before I came to know and admire the man who created it. Brick pillars clothed in creeping fig flank the path leading to his front door, and giant crepe myrtles shade his drive. In spring, white ‘Ice Follies’ narcissus bloom in the ivy skirting a trio of river birches, while in winter, the birds seek refuge in a billowy windbreak of mature boxwoods on the western edge of his yard and in a hedge of Camellia japonica bordering a small lawn on the eastern side. I love camellias, but have had bad luck with japonicas, which have often succumbed to phytophthora at my hands, or perversely fling their buds to the ground, unopened. The autumn-blooming C. sasanquas are easier to grow, being better suited to heat and clay soil and resistant to root-rot. In addition, they bloom in a more reliably temperate season, when their smaller flowers are less vulnerable to the frosts that can turn a gloriously turned-out japonica to a big shrub dripping with mush, overnight.
|Steve with a mature pink C Japonica|
Since it is human nature to covet what we cannot have, however, I covet my neighbor’s sumptuous collection of C. japonicas when they bloom in mid-winter, blanketed with red, white and cotton-candy colored flowers atop glossy shrubs the size of haystacks.
Steve traces his appreciation for camellias to the first trip made to Charleston on his honeymoon with Mrs. S., forty-five years ago. They visited country estates and walled gardens in town, marveling at the camellias blooming there. “Back then camellias were not widely grown in the upstate part of South Carolina,” Steve points out. In fact, camellias were introduced to America from Asia by way of Andre Michaux, the intrepid French explorer and botanist who established a nursery in Charleston in 1786. (Southern gardeners are also indebted to Michaux for giving us crepe myrtles and the fragrant tea olive.) It’s believed that Michaux presented camellia plants to plantation owner Henry Middleton around this time, according to southern garden historian James R. Cothran, who writes in Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South that “one of the original camellias that Michaux is purported to have given to Henry Middleton, Reine des Fleurs, still grows on the grounds” (Cothran 166).
|Flower of C. j. 'Empress'|
Mr. and Mrs. S. toured the grounds of Middleton Plantation beside the Ashley River, with its famous Butterfly Lakes and centuries-old camellias, on that first visit to Charleston.
As newlyweds, they planned to build a house in the country, although Steve had reservations about the idea. “I didn’t want all those varmints.” After renting in Traveler’s Joy for five or six years, during which time their daughter G. was born, they decided to buy the house they’d been living in, smack in the middle of town. “What appealed to us were the big trees on this place – white and red oaks,” Steve remembers. Some of the oaks were eventually damaged by storms and had to be removed, and as Steve’s thumb grew greener, he longed for open space in which to plant. After forty years spent developing a garden that charms with signature Southern plants and understated grace, its tall trees and hedges embracing a swimming pool, an arbor-shaded terrace and a Charleston-style, brick-walled parterre whose pergola is smothered in blush-toned ‘New Dawn’ roses come May, this man is remarkably modest about his labors, saying only “When I started, I was just trying to fill up space.”
|The dark, glossy leaves of 'Empress'|
The camellia hedge evolved slowly, with the first plant arriving shortly after the house was purchased and others coming along as seedlings from the existing trees, as gifts from family and friends, or as finds in backyard nurseries around Tomahawk* County.
It amazes me that so many mature camellias thrive in full sun in Steve’s yard (the tallest are over fifteen feet tall and wide, and over twenty-five years old), but I have learned that this gardener flouts horticulture’s rigid rules with few ill effects, feeling no need to coddle plants that are lucky enough to get the sun, rain and soil that God sends them. The only things growing in Steve’s garden that receive special treatment are two exquisite specimens of Felinus domesticus: ‘Molly’ and ‘Dolly,’ reed-slim sister-cats of unknown origin.
(Allow me this digression: throughout the history of this neighborhood there has been a preponderance of spinster sister-pairs. Two sisters owned the corner-house next door to Steve and M. for many years; these ladies planted the sinuous privet hedge that was torn out by later tenants. The Thomas* sisters, who owned our house at one time and about whom I wrote in a previous post, were considered to be dedicated gardeners as well. More than one neighbor has told me that our property, which used to include the vast, pecan-shaded meadow behind our house that slopes down to Limestone* Street, was entirely cultivated at one time. As I have pieced together fragments of stories about the Thomases, however, it appears that one sister was more genuinely dedicated to flora than the other.
I learned this after Steve’s daughter, G., called her father one spring day, instructing him to tell me that some white daffodils were blooming on the banks of the storm-water ditch beside our yard. I went down to inspect, and was astonished to see several sturdy clumps of an heirloom species of small-cupped narcissi in full flower, clinging to the steep bank. Upon closer inspection, I also recognized some patches of muscari dotting the verge below the sidewalk, and dug these up along with the narcissus, carrying them to safer and more level ground on the newly terraced beds in our backyard.
|N. x medioluteus ('Twin Sisters')|
Some weeks later, W. G., a neighbor who helps his son with his mowing business, came over on a sunny morning to cut our turf. W. G. remarked that on the spot where I’d asked the men to dig a hole large enough for a new crabapple tree, the Misses Thomas had grown a pair of matched camellias. Looking out over my bare landscape, with the blank new retaining wall and empty beds waiting for dryer weather, he informed me that the Thomases had tended richly diverse plantings, with all manner of roses, perennials and shrubs flowering where we stood.
What happened to it all, I marveled, not truly believing such a landscape had ever existed.
W. G. explained that when one of the ladies died, it turned out her sister was not as keen on plants as everyone supposed. The surviving Miss Thomas hired a man with a front-loader to come scrape the whole damn garden off the property, pushing it to the high crust of land that rises above Limestone Street where he pitched it all into the ditch. Here it must have washed away and become someone else’s problem. (And the topsoil, someone’s boon, downstream). The only remnants of the landscape that survived, not surprisingly, were the bulbs, some of which clung to protruding roots in the ditchbank and dug in.
To my mind this story speaks to the stalwart nature of bulbs, and even more directly to the invidious nature of sisterhood...)
Steve insists he does not give his camellias any special food and does not amend the soil. Years of falling oak leaves may have enriched it adequately, even to the point of providing that degree of acidity that camellias prefer. He does struggle with sooty mold in damp years, but the proximity of the hedge to the house next door, which limits air circulation, also protects the trees from morning sun in winter, which can be lethal to plant tissue that has frozen during the night. The only extra care he takes with his camellias is to fortify the branches against ice storms, wiring them to the trunks with eye-bolt screws and coated wire. Nearly all the large, mature plants have suffered damage from ice in previous winters, and Steve maintains that wiring them in this way is the least invasive method, warning that “Cutting off branches after they’ve broken makes it easier for the tree to contract a fungus or disease.”
|Steve's protective wiring in place|
His favorite camellia is the house-sized ‘Empress,’ with hibiscus-like flowers in a shade of red I have heard referred to as ‘blood-of-China.’ The glossy foliage of this plant grows very thickly, with leaves of such a dark-green color they are almost black. In this way the flowers are set off against the foliage as if floating on a midnight sky. Steve claims he would have this camellia even if it never bloomed, just for the sake of its beautiful leaves.
Almost as large (and as old) is a tree bearing pale pink flowers. Its name has been lost, but it has spawned several seedlings. Steve has dug them up and re-sited them to expand the wall of winter-flowering interest. A tree bearing blossoms of pure white at the hedge’s center is also the cold-weather favorite of over-wintering birds, evidenced by the nests tucked into the branch crotches.
|The Charleston-style parterre garden|
Steve has indulged his love of camellias throughout the garden, with a peppermint-striped beauty sheltered beneath hardwoods at the back fence-line, a vertical white bloomer on the west wall of the house, and ten newly planted C. sasanqua ‘Frank Parsons’s forming a screen in his enclosed parterre garden. Talking to me, he takes a moment to sit in this private garden ‘room’ crafted of brick and boxwoods and carefully chosen shade-lovers, a living homage to the elegant Southern city he and his wife loved so well that they were planning one last trip before she passed away in 2011. Molly rubs his leg, looking for affection.
“Plants are like little children,” Steve observes, scooping the small cat into his arms. “You want them to grow up and do their best.”
Everything in his garden appears to be living up to those fond wishes.
|Steve S. and Miss Molly|
Cothran, James R. Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. Print.