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Nov 30 2009

The pale blush of winter

"Skip" Madsen has been growing camelllias on Johns Island since 1925. Above is a hybrid of the varieties "Joshua Youtz" and "High Hat".

"Skip" Madsen has been growing camellias on Johns Island since 1925. Above is a hybrid of the varieties "Joshua Youtz" and "High Hat".

By Kristin Hackler

There’s a tiny slip of land on Johns Island that bursts into life every winter. From a distance, it looks like it’s covered in snow. Everywhere the dark green leaves droop down, heavy with their winter white burdens. But as one walks closer, the “snow” begins to show shades of blushing pink and, even closer, a dusty rose that borders on crimson. They’re camellias – of every shade, color and description – and mid-winter is their time to shine.

Since 1925, “Skip” Madsen has been growing camellias on his property on Johns Island. His house is tucked right behind Sea Island Savory Herbs, formerly known as Pete’s Herbs, and the ten or so acres off Chisolm Road comprising the nursery, his house and a nearby home were his before he divided it between his children. The nursery was established the same year he was married, 1941, and his collection of camellias includes more than 600 varieties.

“Used to be that plants weren’t sold in pots,” said Skip as he drove by a tall hedge of camellias on his ubiquitous golf cart. “The plants were grown in the ground and when someone wanted to purchase them, we’d tag them, dig them up and wrap the root balls in canvas. The customer would come back in a couple days to pick them up.” Consequently, hundreds of camellia plants were left in the ground when nurseries switched to disposable plastic pots. “We used to water and fertilize them,” said Skip, “but now the Lord takes care of them.”

At the age of 18, Skip planted his first camellia and has been at it ever since. His house, which he built by hand in 1940, is surrounded by giant camellias that he and his wife planted in the early 1950s. “I remember when that was just a little thing,” said Skip as he stood under a camellia bush whose uppermost branches reach high above his two story home. The boughs of the tree are sagging with dark pink blossoms this time of year and small, thick petals of magenta fall like a southern snowstorm in a gentle wind.

Beside his house is a bed of unique and rare camellias and two greenhouses. Skip walked into the first one and pointed out the main feature: a deep tabletop filled with coarse sand. “This is where we root,” he said, gesturing toward the back third of the bed which was already filled with clippings. The coarse sand, Skip explained, allows oxygen to get to the roots, something camellias need to become established. “The same thing goes for live oaks,” said Skip. “If you cover the roots of a live oak too deeply in dirt, you’ll kill it.”

The second greenhouse sheltered a hundred or so young plants which had taken root and were growing in small pots. “There’s no telling how long it will take a plant to root,” said Skip. “It could take a month, it could take a year. They root on their own time and there’s no way to tell ahead of time.”

If you’re in a hurry for a more mature plant from a clipping, though, Skip pointed out an interesting trick which can be used on older plants. Whipping once again through his camellia jungle, Skip stopped next to what looked like a piece of litter wedged in a tight cluster of branches.

“This is another way to encourage roots,” said Skip, squeezing the sides of a quart-size yoghurt container taped in the tree. The container is filled with sphagnum moss and placed around the base of a branch which has been scraped to reveal the live green skin underneath. “It takes about the same time to root as a clipping,” said Skip, noting that you can tell when the section has rooted by squeezing the container. If it’s ready, the container will be tight with roots.

A charter member of the American Camellia Society since its inception in 1946, Skip’s knowledge of camellias and their varieties is far greater than even he probably realizes. Names of flowers burst from his lips as easily as one tells the time of day. High Hat, Dwight Eisenhower, Joshua Youtz … and that’s just what he can recognize from several yards away.

Skip’s camellia garden is right across the parking lot from Sea Island Savory Herbs and most days you can find him quietly inspecting the dozens of potted camellias for sale. If you really want to see the camellias in full blossom, drop by sometime in mid-January to experience a kaleidoscopic southern snowstorm of these vibrant, variegated flowers.

Sea Island Savory Herbs is located at 5920 Chisolm Road, Johns Island. For more info, call 559-1446 or visit www.petesherbs.com.

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