Camellias Bloom in Bobby Green's DNA
BY: Nancy Adams, Mobile County Master Gardener www.MobileCountyMasterGardeners.org
Bobby Green of Green Nurseries in Fairhope is recognized as being one of the greatest authorities on camellias in the United States. His family history involving plants and gardening in south Alabama goes back to his great-grandfather, a Union soldier who moved to Baldwin County after the Civil War and eventually owned 300 acres in south Alabama.
The family farmed 80 acres in the Great Depression, and during the early 1930s, Bobby’s father kept a fledgling nursery business alive by transporting plants on Saturday mornings from Fairhope to Bay Minette, the largest city in Baldwin County at the time.
A significant chapter in Bobby’s family history involves his dad’s opportunity in the 1930s to learn about gardening in the South from two Japanese horticultural giants in Mobile’s history: Tsukasa Kiyono and Kosaku Sawada, who originally brought camellia seeds to Mobile from Japan and made considerable contributions to the beautification of south Alabama.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Bob Sr. primarily grew camellias. Bob married another transplanted Yankee, Lillian, in 1948 and from then through the 1980s, as the family grew, the business expanded to include a nursery and garden center in Fairhope – where Bobby worked and learned gardening. He says his dad was a wonderful teacher and quite a character who could quote Bear Bryant and Shakespeare equally well.
Although Bobby studied history and archaeology at USA, he gravitated to gardening, especially to camellias, realizing they have a strong history in the South and all over the world. He found it fascinating that one can grow identical DNA of a plant that Queen Victoria and Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed. (Roosevelt named one of them after his cat.)
When Bobby began searching for old camellias – in abandoned areas of Mobile, Theodore, Daphne, Montrose, and other old garden areas – many he found still had name tags of camellias no longer in production. He found "Sea Foam” which originated in 1962 at the old River View Nursery near Theodore, Alabama. It has been reintroduced and is popular now.
Bobby Green's Camellia Sasanqua 'Pink Profusion' (provided by Mobile Botanical Gardens)
According to Seth Allen, Horticulture Director & Curator of Collections of Mobile Botanical Gardens, Bobby became involved with MBG in 2008 when he “was instrumental in the revitalization of the now K. Sawada WinterGarden at Mobile Botanical Gardens. The original camellia plantings by the Sawada and Dodd families had been neglected and overgrown. He greatly expanded the garden with donations from his own collections and in 2014 the garden was designated an International Camellia Garden of Merit by the International Camellia Society. The floral displays every winter are a beautiful reminder of the rich horticultural heritage of our region.”
Bobby’s friend and fellow nurseryman, Maarten van der Giessen, told us, “I think growing up with his father’s garden gave Bobby a different viewpoint about growing plants. He thinks in terms of how a plant will look in fifty years. The marvelous landscape plan he did for the MBG WinterGarden gets more beautiful every year as each plant grows into its place in his design.”
The WinterGarden is now a significant part of the Botanical Gardens and is especially beautiful at this time of year. One highlight of the Camellia Garden is that it has become a repository for many rare and scarce camellias, varieties that originated in south Alabama and are associated with individuals in and around Mobile and Gulfport.
Currently moving out of the production business, Bobby Green is developing new varieties of camellias and Southeastern plants – like mountain laurels, which grow all the way from Maine to Dauphin Island. He has 13 camellias already patented and is always working on others. Bobby says the odds of developing a new one are low . . . only one seed in 2,000 might have potential to be released into nurseries.
Bobby chuckled when he shared the story that his friend Fred Nation brought him cuttings of a rare native plant named Fothergilla– related to witch hazel. They were the tiniest cuttings he could imagine but Bobby grew and sold them all over the country – naming this newly-discovered species Redneck Nation.
He is still searching for a camellia lovely enough to be named for his wife, Debra. If that one comes along, he says he may go back after 45 years and get that archaeology degree.
Gardening Events for Your Calendar
What: Pruning Class for fruit trees, roses, ornamentals
offered by Mobile County Extension Agent
When: Wed, Feb 24, 2021 (9 am to Noon)
Where: Jon Archer Ag Center, 1070 Schillinger Rd N, Mobile
Register: Call 251-574-8445 to make sure you have a seat
Bring: Your pruners, mask.