It all began when Collier Brown and his wife Martha moved into a house in Southeast Portland where a large camellia was blooming. He wanted to know what it was.
'I broke a bloom off and took it to the camellia society show,' he said. A member told him it was 'Lady Clare,' and promptly invited him to join the club.
'They kept giving me plants, saying 'You have to have this,' and 'You can't live without this.' We just accumulated things,' Brown said.
As he led me through his garden, an array of pink, red, white, and striped flowers brightened up the gray spring afternoon. 'Lady Clare' was a riot of red-pink blossoms on the side yard; the shrub was tall enough to reach the home's second story. 'Bob Hope' was ablaze with giant red flowers, ruffled at the edges, while 'Garden Glory' was full of double pink blossoms. Each camellia we stopped to admire was unique.
'This is possibly the most perfect camellia,' said Brown, pointing to 'Sawada's Dream' - named after Kosaku Sawada, who moved from Japan to Alabama and started a nursery there.
'He planted 10,000 seeds a year, and this was the one he considered the finest,' Brown said. 'At its best, it's a perfect spiral and has won in many a show.'
Standing before the flowers, white inside and pink on the edges, I found it hard to tear myself away. It's a dreamy flower, perfectly symmetrical and delicate in color. But I had to go on; we were still in the front yard and had barely begun the tour.
Getting better with time
To see Brown's garden was to witness the passion of a collector, a gardener who zeroes in on one genus and grows as many of its members as possible. To specialize like this is to dive deeply into one group of plants and know them intimately.
For example, Brown said that, although camellias will bloom when they're young, it takes about 10 years for the blossoms to reach their full size. He remembered his surprise at discovering this. When he saw the much larger mature flowers, he realized, 'Oh, so that's what they're supposed to be!'
Also, most camellias grow into trees. You don't want to plant them in front of windows, or you'll be pruning them all the time. But if you should inherit an oversize camellia, don't worry.
'You can cut them down to a stump and they'll come back,' Brown said. When he first moved into his house he discovered a 'Finlandia' camellia that had been cut to the ground, with a woodpile on top of it. Once the wood was removed, it came back.
Evergreen leaves make camellias perfect for the back of a shady border, for screening a neighboring property, or for dressing up a wall without windows - such as the north or east-facing side of a garage. Then you'll only need to trim them for shaping and air circulation.
'The Japanese prune so that a bird can fly through, letting light and air blow through,' Brown said. 'The best time to prune is right after they bloom. Or cut the branches to enjoy flowers in the house.'
Another piece of advice - find out if the blooms shatter, or fall in one piece. According to Brown, it's easier to remove whole flowers from the ground beneath the camellias, than a soggy collection of shattered blossoms.
An exciting bloom
A true collector such as Brown also appreciates unusual camellia foliage. He showed me 'Taiyo,' with yellow markings at the centers of the leaves, and 'Kingyo-tsubaki' with leaves shaped like fishtails.
But for me, the flower display was thrilling, especially gorgeous 'Brigadoon,' covered with showy pink flowers, big and ruffled. The blossoms of 'Black Prince' were so dark and shiny, they looked lacquered. I was drawn to 'Coral Delight,' with dark pink-coral flowers and clusters of yellow stamens showing at the center, and 'Anzac,' a rose-pink with a lovely pattern to the petals, reminiscent of a waterlily. Brown was especially fond of 'E. G. Waterhouse Variegated.'
'The alternate pink and white petals stir my heart,' he said. 'Tinsie,' a dark red with a white center, is another favorite. 'It's the only one I have two of,' Brown confessed.
Then there was 'Momoji-no-higurashi,' (an evening in Momeji), its deep pink petals streaked with crimson and white. Every spring it delights him.
'Year after year you can fall in love with the same plant all over again,' Brown said.
• Lewis Elementary School Garden Fair, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., April 17, to benefit the school's learning garden. Plant sale, garden-inspired art market, live music and student-led tours of the Lewis Learning Gardens. Learn how Lewis teaches kids about sustainable living - gardening, recycling, water management and healthy eating. 4401 S.E. Evergreen St., Portland (just south of Woodstock). For more information, contact www.LewisEvents.org or Erin at 503-774-1743.