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Brays in Full Bloom: Camellias

In the language of flowers, camellias symbolize perfected loveliness and unpretending excellence. If that’s true, then what better place for a camellia garden than Brays Island Plantation—where owners value the understated elegance of the land?

The iconic southern flower was originally introduced to this part of the world just down the road from Brays Island at another plantation: Middleton Place. Andre Michaux, plant explorer and botanist to King Louis XVI, established the South’s first botanical garden just north of Charleston in 1786. Michaux presented several camellia plantings to his friend Henry Middleton to be planted in his formal gardens at Middleton Place. This is where the Lowcountry’s love affair with the camellia is believed to have sprouted.

But Brays owners don’t have to travel far to admire the beloved flowers. “There is a phenomenal camellia garden located in the northeastern corner of Brays Island in the area between the Inn and the boat dock on the Pocotaligo River,” says Bruce Lampright, Brays Island’s full-time naturalist. “The garden was planted during the Davis era in the early ‘40s and ‘50s. There are some nice specimens and a good sampling of cultivars.”

The Resource and Stewardship Committee is working to replace historical favorites and old cultivars that have been lost over the years, according to committee representative Brenda Fontenot. “It’s currently a work in progress,” she says. “There were originally more than 100 varieties of camellias in the garden.”

The spring-blooming Camellia japonica is considered a classic southern icon. Its prized flowers can be up to five inches wide and bloom from late winter to early spring. It has been cultivated for hundreds of years in Asia, and there are many thousands of varieties and cultivars in a wide array of flower forms and colors. Unfortunately for those living outside of the “camellia belt” of the southern United States, Camellia japonica is not reliably cold-hardy. Guess we’re in luck here at Brays Island Plantation!