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Susan Walker transplanted 50 camellias when she move from Edisto to Ricefields. She gave 100 plants to Brookgreen Gardens in memory of her late husband.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Winter in full bloom

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

With the return of freezing weather, Susan Walker of the Ricefields community was clipping camellia blooms early this week for entry into the Grand Strand Camellia Society’s 12th annual show Saturday and Sunday at Inlet Square Mall.

The society’s main purpose is to encourage the growth of the “winter rose,” as it’s known in flower circles. Camellia competition borders on obsession at its highest levels.

Walker and her late husband, Johnnie, entered as many as a thousand blooms a year from their garden in Edisto in camellia shows around the Southeast. She said their 450 camellia bushes were too much for her to manage alone, so she gave more than 100 to Brookgreen Gardens — for the Johnnie Walker Camellia Walk — and brought 50 to her new home in Ricefields 18 months ago.

She said her plants aren’t as mature as most in the competition, but she still has some pretty blooms. Unusually warm December weather triggered early blooming and new growth. “That’s good in a way but bad for the shows,” said Mack McKinnon, show chairman for the Grand Strand Camellia Society. He said local camellia growers will “bloom out” early this season and have little to enter in the final month of competition.

“I’ve got this much new growth on my plants,” said Walker, holding her fingertips a half-inch apart, “and it’s killing my buds.”

Still, the flowers open on their own schedule, Walker said. She’s got a “gorgeous” Miss Charleston red that won’t open by Saturday. Contestants try all sorts of tricks. They use Q-tips and cotton balls to pull the petals apart and stick straight pins in the back of flowers to hold them together. “Don’t ever leave a cotton ball behind,” Walker said. “That’s a disqualification.”

There are some delicate varieties like Taylor’s Perfection that have to be cut the day before the show. The blooms resist any manipulation.

Walker uses a hole-puncher to put a hole in a leaf and slides it over the camellia bloom’s stem for display. McKinnon cuts a notch in the leaf and slides it into position. Some shows require a leaf or two to remain attached. Walker said she was disqualified in Cypress Gardens, Fla., over a leaf.

McKinnon, a retired engineer from Hartsville, grows his camellias in a small backyard greenhouse at his home in Bayfield. “This is not a hobby,” he said. “It’s an obsession.” He enjoys grafting plants and watching what it produces. Sometimes, a plant will produce a flower from its parent that is a total surprise, like the Margaret Davis bloom in Walker’s yard that was a “sport” of an Aspasia Macarthur camellia bush. The plants bloom from December to March, providing red, white and pink blooms to an otherwise dreary landscape, and require little maintenance with their natural resistance to disease and insects.

McKinnon helped start the Grand Strand Camellia Society when he retired to Murrells Inlet 14 years ago. Its purpose is to promote growing, not just show flowers. Though the local club has just 12 members, everybody lends a hand with the show. It’s a big production that costs the club more than $1,200 a year. McKinnon expects 32 judges from as far away as Florida. “We invite a lot of judges because they bring flowers,” he said. Besides the 12 categories for judging, other awards include special designations, such as for novice growers, and a “Court of Honor.” In addition, anyone can bring a camellia for display.

Local growers are keeping an eye on their blooms for this year’s National Camellia Show Jan. 23 at The Citadel Mall in Charleston. Grand Strand Camellia Club members will hear from Darren Sheriff, president of the Coastal Carolina Camellia Society, about the national show at their meeting Monday at 4:30 p.m. at the Waccamaw Branch Library at Willbrook.

Grand Strand Camellia Society’s 12th annual show includes exhibitors from around the Southeast. Local growers are invited to compete. Saturday-Sunday, 1-5 p.m., Inlet Square Mall. Free admission. Call 843-995-1256 for entry information.

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