My Dad’s Camellias Are A Welcome Bright Spot In The Middle Of Winter

camellia bowl
PHOTO: COURTESY OF KARI CRIBB

There’s not much I look forward to in the month of January. Christmas has come and gone, and all we’re left with are gray days and weather that can’t make up its mind. The lone bright spot for me in these dreary winter months is my dad’s collection of camellias, which burst into brilliant color every year when the temperature drops. For me, the flowers have become synonymous with my dad, who floats his clippings in a camellia bowl for the rest of us to enjoy up close. But the way he tells it, his camellia-growing career nearly ended before it started.

Despite having a green thumb (the product of having grown up on a farm in rural South Carolina), he didn’t recognize the glossy, not-flowering-at-the-time shrub in the yard of his and my mom’s first house in Charleston. And he didn’t learn what it was until he’d hacked off some limbs in order to build a fence for the rescue pup they’d just brought home.

“I saw our neighbor, Mrs. Edith, looking at the bush, with her hand on her hip, her shoulders sagged down, and her cigarette between her fingers,” he tells me. He apologized for the fence-building noise—and then realized her eyes were fixed only on the shrub. “So I said, I don’t know what that plant is, but I hope I didn’t kill it,” he remembers. “And she said, ‘I hope you didn’t too. That’s a Drama Girl that I helped so-and-so plant 20 years ago.’ I asked her what that was, and she told me it was a camellia. That was where my education began.”

The 'Betsy' camellia growing in my parents' backyard
COURTESY OF BRYAN CRIBB

Over the five years my parents lived in that house, my dad and Mrs. Edith forged a friendship. He’d help dig up stumps in her yard; she’d teach him how to graft camellias, how to propagate them with pickle jars and paper bags, and how to plant them under oak trees where the soil was more acidic. “She smiled like I’d won an Olympic gold medal when my first graft took,” he says. “She was happier than I was.”

When my parents moved to a new home, he brought along some of the camellias he and Mrs. Edith had cultivated together, including one that she gifted him right after I was born—a sport that she told him she’d “been saving for something special.” She named it for me, and the frilly flower, with its pink-red petals and its yellow anthers, still grows in my parents’ backyard today—one of dozens of living memories of the woman who taught my dad so much.

As for that first shrub he nearly obliterated? That’s now his favorite camellia variety. “Just to look at them, you can’t beat a Drama Girl,” he says. “They make so many flowers they look like they’re going to break the bush they’re on.”

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