Big, Fat Camellias Steal the Show

February 27, 2009 | By | Comments (7)

The Grump learned something new this month on Edisto Island, South Carolina. To produce the biggest, fattest, prize-winning camellia blooms, you need to start with Johnnie Walker.

Dscf0706_2   I took this myself!

No, I’m not talking about Johnnie Walker Red, Johnnie Walker Black, or even Johnnie Walker Blue (as tasty and rewarding as that might be). I’m talking about Johnnie Walker the camellia guru, who shows prize-winning camellia blooms all over the Southeast and wins “Best in Show” just about every year.

Associate Garden Editor Rebecca Reed, Senior Photographer Ralph Anderson, and I paid a visit to Johnnie and his wife, Susan, a couple of weeks ago, as they were girding themselves for another championship run. The big show in Columbia, South Carolina was 3 days away, Johnnie’s blooms were peaking, and they needed to stay that way. Johnnie enthusiastically walked from plant to plant, telling each one’s story, but weather was threatening and Susan was getting a little tense. “He needs to go ahead and pick that one right now,” she said to me, pointing at a beautiful bloom. Here Ralph takes a picture of Johnnie’s ‘Frank Houser,’ a Camellia reticulata with blooms like kaleidoscopic clouds.

Dscf0705_2 Ralph — such a pro!

Johnnie and Susan belong to the American Camellia Society, and plant society people are — well, you know, special. I’ve visited with the Camellia Society, Rose Society, Fern Society, Rhododendron Society, Daylily Society, Iris Society, Hosta Society, Orchid Society, Daffodil Society, Boxwood Society, Hydrangea Society, Palm Society, Hibiscus Society, Oleander Society, and Canna Society. I have not yet made it to the annual meetings of the Kohlrabi Society or Amorphophallus Society, but heck, there are only so many days in the week.

From talking with Johnnie, Susan, and their fellow camellia enthusiast, Richard Mims, there seems to be a healthy competition between camellia and rose people. When asked to describe camellias, Richard said, “The main difference between camellia blooms and rose blooms is that camellias are much, much prettier.” Susan further stoked the fire by observing, “Women are like camellias and men are like roses, because camellias don’t smell.”

How to Grow Prize-Winning, Morbidly Obese Camellias

There are a zillion camellia categories at shows, some for little flowers, but most normal people go for gigantic blooms that look like they’re on HGH. (In fact, applying a kind of plant HGH is one step, but more on that later.) Here are a few of the steps necessary to legally win.

1. Plant in acid, well-drained soil that contains lots of organic matter.

2. Provide high, dappled shade from tall pines or hardwoods and protection from strong wind.

3. Train your camellia to a single trunk with well-spaced branches. Prune after bloom.

4. Now comes the fun part — plant drugs. You see, camellia blooms need to be fully open for the show, but sometimes they require, um, chemical coaxing, called ‘gibbing.” (If Barry Bonds did this, it would be called “Barry Gibbing,” and he would be singing “Staying Alive.”) “Gib” is short for gibberellic acid, which is a plant growth regulator. To gib a camellia, you pinch out the pointed vegetative bud just below a plump, rounded flower bud, leaving a small cup of bud scales at the base. You then place one drop of gibberellic acid into this cup. Depending on the camellia type and the weather, the flower bud will open within 30 to 90 days after the treatment and the flower will be huge. Click here for a mail-order source for gibberellic acid. Whoa, dude, apply it only to camellias, not yourself!

5. Until the show, store blooms in a refrigerator like Johnnie’s, shown below.


Hmmm….was it the gib that made the blooms bigger? Or was it all the beer and sardines? All I know is that once again, Johnnie won “Best in Show.”






Looking for Young Gardeners

If you’re 25-40, living in in the South, and have a nice garden (no matter the size or complexity), let the Grump know about it! The world needs to know of your brilliance! Email me at Don’t keep your success all to yourself. You’ll feel better if you share.


  1. Alice in Kenbridge, VA

    My camellia always bloom in the winter. They are always covered in snow and ice. I love it! Everyone always ask what they are and where to get them.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:49 pm
  2. Beverly

    Make sure the refrigerator is NOT a frost free type, if not those blooms will not be so big when you pull them out for a show!

    March 4, 2010 at 7:31 am
  3. Grumpy Gardener

    I totally agree with you. Where will this chemical madness end? I propose that every flower entered into competition be subjected to a mandatory urine test.

    March 1, 2009 at 8:17 pm
  4. Jim Long

    I’m surprised it’s acceptable to torque up a camellia with gibberellic acid, and not so for athletes who ramp up their bodies on similar hormones. But with camellias, the end surely justifies the means. Go camellias!

    March 1, 2009 at 11:10 am
  5. Grumpy Gardener

    Some camellias bloom early, some bloom later. There is nothing you can do to delay blooming, so unless you can change the weather, some years your blooms are going to get frozen. Sheets provide little insulation during really cold nights. The good thing about camellias is that many don’t open their flowers all at once, so even if some turn to mush, others will open. FYI, we’re having this weird March snowstorm this morning (it hardly ever snows in Birmingham)and my camellia blooms are covered with snow. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make — it makes a cool picture.

    March 1, 2009 at 9:51 am
  6. Pete

    Richmond, VA
    Blooms have turned brown with few survivors. Is there a simple way to prevent this occurance next year?
    Plants were covered with sheet during coldest nights and days.

    February 28, 2009 at 5:19 pm
  7. Delfina

    I got a good belly laugh.(Looking for Young Gardners) Planning on a trip with the Mary Jane Society.

    February 27, 2009 at 1:13 pm

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