Story and photos by Katie Jackson
As later-flowering camellias (C. japonica) begin bursting into bloom across the state this month, they’ll add welcome splashes of color to the winter landscape. In Greenville, however, those japonica blooms will practically blanket the landscape.
Greenville, located just off Interstate 65 in Butler County, is home to thousands of camellias, the first of which reportedly arrived in 1848 at a time when camellias were becoming popular additions to southern landscapes. Over time, more camellias were planted in the town and more and more residents began growing and propagating the plants.
By 1937, Greenville was so chock-full of camellias that, prompted by a comment from a visiting garden editor, the town adopted “The Camellia City” as its moniker. That same year, the Greenville Garden Club hosted the town’s first camellia show, an annual event that became one of the biggest camellia shows in the state. (The 1950 show drew some 5,000 attendees from all but eight of the Alabama’s 67 counties.)
During the 1940s, a friendly competition among the town’s wealthier “white-collar” men to hybridize the plants resulted in an array of novel locally developed camellias. Local residents, including members of the county’s numerous Home Demonstration Clubs, also began planting camellias everywhere—in private yards and gardens, along city streets and on the grounds of parks, cemeteries, schools, churches and other community spaces. Numerous camellia-focused organizations also formed, among them the Greenville Men’s Camellia Club (established in 1947), whose members were pivotal in creating the Alabama Camellia Society in 1948 and in the designation of the C. japonica as Alabama’s official state flower in 1959. Greenville also became a go-to destination for camellia enthusiasts from across the region and beyond.
Though interest in camellias has waxed and waned over the 176 years since the first camellia arrived in Greenville, the passion among its residents for these plants has not faded. And one of the most passionate is local historian and self-professed camellia fanatic Barbara Middleton. A native of Butler County, Middleton grew up around camellias, but didn’t fall under their spell until the early 1980s when she saw them blooming in a historic South Carolina garden.
“I came home and bought about 20 camellias and started my garden,” she said. In the years since, Middleton has become both an accomplished camellia grower and a devoted advocate for the town’s camellia plants and heritage. Known by her fellow Greenville Camellia Society members as the “Camellia Whisperer,” she has also worked tirelessly with other local camellia devotees to put Greenville back on the map as a camellia destination.
In April 2023, those efforts paid off when the town’s historic Beeland Park became part of the American Camellia Society’s prestigious American Camellia Trail. Camellias are scattered throughout the eight-acre park, but they are the stars of its “Garden of Memory,” which contains a mix of earlier blooming sasanquas (C. sasanquas) and japonicas, 300 of which are more than 70 years old and another 100 that were planted in the last decade.
While sasanquas have been festooning Beeland Park and the town with colorful blooms all fall, now is when the japonicas come into their own, cloaking Greenville in color and making this a prime time to see Greenville’s camellias in all their glory. This month the town will also offer an additional camellia experience: the 2024 Beeland Park Camellia Show, which is planned for Jan. 27-28.
Presented by the Greenville Camellia Society and the City of Greenville and sponsored by the ACS, the show is a chance for camellia growers, both experienced and novice, to bring their best blooms and compete for honors. It is also an opportunity for the public to see the beauty and diversity of camellia blooms, mingle with experts and buy camellia plants. (More information on the day’s events and Greenville’s many camellia resources can be found on the Greenville Camellia Society’s Facebook page.)
Organizers and city leaders believe the show and the town’s designation to the ACS Camellia Trail will once again make Greenville a go-to destination for camellia enthusiasts. That, in turn, will cultivate new tourism and business opportunities for the town signaling a new blossoming for “The Camellia City.”