City widely known for love of camellia flower

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 14, 2004

With the coming of new industry and new job and business opportunities to the area (not to mention its continued show of old-fashioned southern hospitality) Greenville is now known as both &uot;The Exit to Success&uot; and &uot;The City of Smiles.&uot;

But long before the county seat took on these names, it was known by another name, an appellation still much loved by many of its residents past and present – &uot;The Camellia City.&uot;

This lovely evergreen plant with its delicate blooms has captured the imagination of generations of local gardeners, artists and botanists – anyone, in fact, that appreciates nature’s beauty.

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Camellias everywhere

It’s hard to spend much time in the City of Greenville, or research its past 50 years, without noting the influence of the camellia.

Businesses of the past and present incorporated the plant’s name into their own (The Camellia Drive-In, Camellia City Florist, Camellia Communications, to name a few). Several well-known camellia varieties – Pride of Greenville, Beauty of Greenville and Alba Plena – once appeared on a local dairy’s milk cartons.

Schools, homes, churches, city buildings, parks and cemeteries are graced with camellia blooms, and articles about the plant once regularly appeared in the local newspaper.

Shows celebrating the camellia’s beauty have drawn crowds from far and near over the years and local students once learned how to grow and propagate the plant in science classes.

Greenville High School’s Tiger Stadium was once the sight of a football game known as &uot;The Camellia Bowl&uot;, with a local lovely crowned as its &uot;Camellia Queen.&uot; Today, Greenville’s two garden clubs feature names spawned from the camellia, &uot;Pride of Greenville&uot; and &uot;Sasanqua&uot;.

Civic leaders and newspaper editors fervently championed the cause of the camellia during the decades of the mid-20th century.

Indeed, physician and author Clifton Meador, who grew up in Greenville, recalls the city as a place &uot;where the men loved their flowers.&uot;

While many of the individuals, organizations and businesses are no longer here, the beautiful camellias they planted and showered with TLC live on. In more ways than one, camellias were, and are, a big part of the Greenville and Butler County landscape.

Camellias: a part of history

Camellias have been on the scene in this part of the Heart of Dixie for close to 150 years. According to an article by Annie Crenshaw in the January 2002 issue of the Butler County Historical and Genealogical Society (BCHGS) Quarterly (Vol. 38, No. 1) Butler County residents were ordering plants, including many camellia plants, from the Langdon Nurseries north of Mobile as far back as the mid-1850s.

&uot;Like crepe myrtles and old roses,&uot; Crenshaw wrote, &uot;Camellia japonicas reveal the sites of many old homesteads today, though they were found more often in affluent gardens than plain pioneer landscapes.&uot;

In the same 2002 issue of the BCHGS quarterly,society president Barbara Middleton noted Greenville "was known for her beautiful camellias 20 years before the camellia was named as the state flower in 1959. In the 1953 American Camellia Yearbook, J. Glenn Stanley [of The Greenville Advocate] told how Greenville became the Camellia City.&uot;

A town in bloom

According to Middleton, the camellia was already &uot;a well-established and popular flower&uot; in Greenville by the turn of the last century.

Annual flower shows hosted by the old Greenville Garden Club often featured camellia blooms, while monthly meetings of the club frequently shared tips on growing and propagating camellias with members.

In February 1937, Ben Arthur Davis, a native of Crenshaw County and garden editor of Holland’s magazine, was the guest speaker of the club.

&uot;During a tour of the city, Davis remarked he had never seen so many large camellia plants in one town – only Mobile and New Orleans were comparable,&uot; Middleton wrote.

The ‘Camellia City’ is born

Davis’s visit stirred great interest in local residents. In January 1938, the Greenville Garden Club selected the Camellia japonica as the city flower and requested the city administration make it the official city flower, which it did.

On Feb. 3, 1938, J. Glenn Stanley, editor of The Greenville Advocate, adopted the slogan &uot;Greenville, the Camellia City&uot;, as the official heading of the newspaper – and the &uot;Camellia City&uot; was truly born.

&uot;The slogan was in turn adopted by city officials, civic organizations and businessmen. Pictures of camellias began to appear on products and signs everywhere,&uot; Middleton wrote.

The garden club did its part by urging residents to &uot;plant at least one camellia on each front lawn.&uot; The club took orders from residents who could not get the size and/or varieties of camellias they wanted from local nurseries, and placed them with larger suppliers in Baldwin and Mobile Counties.

In 1938, Greenville residents literally began to set out camellia plants &uot;by the thousands&uot;.

The show begins

The first official camellia show, hosted by the Greenville Garden Club, was held in Greenville the following year. During the show, Mayor J.T. Beeland announced the city’s cooperation and plans for making Greenville &uot;a beautiful camellia center.&uot;

Throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, camellia shows were a regular event in the city, and local residents routinely were able to enjoy photos and articles concerning Greenville’s blooming beauties in the pages of the Advocate.

School children put on pageants and plays detailing the camellia’s history and celebrating its beauty. Classes and clubs organized annual plantings of the city’s signature shrub.

In peacetime and war

These beautiful blooming evergreens also played their part in supporting the war effort. During WW II, &uot;hundreds of blooms were donated to the USO following flower shows and camellia bushes were planted in honor of men and women in the military&uot;, wrote Annie Crenshaw in the January 2002 BCHGS quarterly.

Crenshaw also noted the local garden club made kit bags for local servicemen and the Red Cross, and sent food and flowers for the dining tables of officers and guards at a prisoner of war camp near Greenville.

War Bond funds were also raised by the sale of camellia plants. In fact, $25,000 in bonds was raised from the sale of just three camellia plants donated by local nurseries and residents in 1944 (the three camellias were planted on the Butler County Courthouse lawn).

&uot;Today,&uot; Crenshaw, whose father was a WWII veteran, wrote, &uot;there may be a camellia blooming in Butler County that was planted in honor of one of your family members, friends or neighbors in military service. It was a beautiful way to remember an unforgettable generation.&uot;

Remember the camellias

While camellias are still prized by many in the Camellia City, those annual flower shows with thousands in attendance seem to be a thing of the past, and some of Greenville’s older shrubs and trees have become overgrown and clearly neglected in recent years.

The beautiful flower still has its local champions, however, who urges us to &uot;remember the camellias&uot;.

In 2002, the BCHGS held the city’s first official flower show in 15 years, drawing visitors from as far away as Mobile and more than 100 entries from Andalusia, Elberta, Fort Deposit, and the Crenshaw County area as well as Greenville and Butler County.

In recent years, the city’s horticultural department has been grafting and propagating many of the older camellia plants so new generations of families and businesses can enjoy the beauty of the flowers.

In early 2004, the Greenville Lions Club organized an effort to clean up &uot;Camellia Hill&uot; behind Beeland Park (the Greenville Area YMCA) freeing historic camellia plants from dense, choking overgrowth.

New generations are indeed discovering the beauty of the Camellia City. In fact, a Korean businessman is said to be landscaping his new Greenville home with bamboo – and camellias.

Long live the Camellia City.