Flower Power

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Local camellia enthusiasts work together to give the winter flower its due — and pass on their civic pride to the next generation


GEORGIA HAS ITS FAIR SHARE of famous flora. While Cherokee Rose may be the official state flower, there are spring festivals for cherry blossoms in Macon and dogwood trees in Atlanta. Ray Charles sang of the moonlight through the pines, and the Masters Tournament at Augusta National wouldn’t be the same without the azaleas in full bloom.

Savannah, of course, is well-known for its canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss. And now, thanks to a few local enthusiasts, camellias are getting time in the sunlight. 

Seeds of Inspiration

Isle of Hope neighbors Dr. Sidney “Doc” Smith and Don Waters share not only a mutual admiration for camellias but also a desire to unite neighbors for the greater good. 

Neither is new for them. 

Smith is a dermatologist by trade and owns local landmark Cohen’s Retreat with his wife, Colleen, and Waters resigned from the Georgia Board of Regents last year, allowing him more time to serve as a camellia historian and benefactor.

red camellia blossom
Photo by Alissa Lee Nicholson

Together, about four years ago, they got an idea to create the Great Savannah Camellia Wall. 

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for kids from all across Chatham County to meet, work together, share an experience, foster Savannah pride, honor the memory of Judge Arthur Solomon and provide the foundation for an annual Savannah Camellia Festival and Parade,” Smith says.

The late Solomon was a public servant (the title “Judge” was used as an honorary designation for county commissioners); however, he is best known as one of the founders of the American Camellia Society and for beautifying Savannah roadways with live oaks, azaleas, palm trees and, of course, camellias. 

In that same spirit, the community-wide initiative to plant 2,000 camellias is underway this fall along the 3-mile Truman Bike Trail from Lake Mayer Park to Cohen’s Retreat.

Dr. Sidney Smith and Don Waters with camellia plants
Dr. Sidney Smith and Don Waters at Cohen’s Retreat with camellia plants grown at Hobbes Hill Farm.

“The goal is for elementary and middle school students to create a legacy for everyone to enjoy annually forever,” Smith says. “As the first flowers to bloom each winter, the camellias will remind us how lucky we are to live in Savannah and in such a caring community. We’ll share a walk and celebrate everyone’s civic pride.” 

Through the end of November, students from Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS), St. Andrew’s School, Benedictine Military School, Calvary Day School, Savannah Country Day School and St. Vincent’s Academy are participating in planting days alongside master gardeners from the Coastal Georgia Camellia Society and other volunteers. 

“I’m most excited to see the first child with a shovel in their hands,” Smith says.

Digging In 

A civic initiative of this scale is easier said than done. To properly plan and grow the plants, Smith and Waters turned to another local expert — the founder of the Coastal Georgia Camellia Society and active member of the American Camellia Society, Gene Phillips.

While now living on the 300-acre Hobbes Hill Farm in Sylvania, Georgia, Phillips spent 47 years as a landscape contractor in Savannah, where he grew up surrounded by plants. His father, a veteran with disabilities, started Gene’s Nursery “to keep his mind off his problems” before passing away when Phillips was only 15. Ever since, he says that camellias have been the most important thing in his life.

Gene Phillips standing under an oak tree with hands in pockets
Coastal Georgia Camellia Society founder Gene Phillips // Photo by Kelli Boyd Photography

Phillips previously met both men through other projects — advising Smith on which long-bloom camellias to plant at Cohen’s Retreat and tending gardens on Waters’ Isle of Hope property.

It comes as no surprise that Phillips loved the idea for a new project, although he admittedly had some doubts about the feasibility. He had tried in the past to plant camellias in public places like Savannah roadsides and says he faced hurdles when dealing with county and city officials. Phillips also led the creation of the Judge Arthur Solomon Camellia Trail at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, which boasts nearly 1,000 varieties of camellia thanks to support from members of the Coastal Georgia Camellia Society.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, this is going to be really difficult.’ I was excited, but a little bit of me was wondering if it could really happen,” Phillips says. “But when you’re dealing with Doc, it’s not so difficult because he is such a determined individual.”

Smith notes several key individuals are making this initiative possible, including City of Savannah Sustainability Director Nick Deffley, Chief Development Officer Heath Lloyd and District 3 Alderman Lynda Wilder Bryant, and SCCPSS Associate Superintendent Bernadette Ball-Oliver. Grayce French is overseeing the fall planting volunteers and also serving as the director of the inaugural Savannah Camellia Festival, 5K Run/Walk and Parade on February 24, 2024.

Ready to Bloom

With a team in place and Phillips’ expert opinion, the men selected the Royal Velvet variety, a japonica developed by the world-famous Nuccio’s Nursery in California, to line the pathway. The bright red blooms happen to be Phillips’ favorite, but that’s not the sole reason they chose it. It’s compact, easy to grow and relatively risk-averse — meaning it can tolerate sun and shade equally and is resistant to insects and disease. 

“It has beautiful dark green foliage, and it blooms from the middle of January to the middle of April,” he says. “This has the ‘wow’ factor.”

red camellia blossom
Photo by Alissa Lee Nicholson

While japonicas are the most prominent and popular species of camellias, several hundred different varieties exist — all with origins in China, Japan and Southeast Asia. (Some may be surprised to learn that tea comes from leaves harvested from the Camellia sinensis.)

“Camellias have been in this country since the 1800s, so you’d almost think they were native,” Phillips says. Rather, japonicas’ journey to Savannah took serious dedication — much more than the average Saturday morning run to a local garden center. Solomon brought camellias from France on the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner to plant all over the city, including in the squares. At the time, America had an embargo on French soil, so he had to go so far as to remove all the soil from the plants to transport them. 

While the flowers may be easier to come by these days, Phillips says the visionary spirit of Solomon endures through these efforts. 

“If there was anyone you could ever say was the next Judge Solomon, it’s Doc Smith,” Phillips says.

Save the Date

The First Annual Savannah Camellia Festival and Parade

The all-day event will kick off with a 5K run/walk and parade along the Harry Truman Bike Path, beginning at Herschel V. Jenkins High School and finishing at Cohen’s Retreat. Then, stick around for kids’ activities, a plant sale from Hobbes Hill Farm and the Coastal Georgia Camellia Society’s annual statewide camellia bloom competition. Find more information and register for events at savannahcamelliafestival.com.

SAVANNAH IN BLOOM: In winter, while much of the country is buried under feet of snow and ice, Savannah’s famous camellias come out to play. READ MORE

Cover of Savannah magazine's November/December 2023 issue

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