Birmingham Camellia Society
Birmingham Camellia Society
|Address||5022 Mark Trail
Birmingham, AL 35242
The Birmingham Camellia Society hosts a local camellia show, with competition open only to residents of Jefferson and Shelby Counties, Alabama on February 15, 2020, at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, in Birmingham, Alabama. It will be open to the public from 1:00 to 4:00 pm.
The club holds two meetings each year and hosts members-only activities.
About the Birmingham Camellia Society
In the words of Holy Scripture the prophet Isaiah gives us a suggestion, “Look to the rock from which you were hewed, the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isaiah 51:1) Following that suggestion I look back on the passion exhibited by my father-in-law Lee Poe and his camellia friends from the late 1930’s to the end of the Century. This may well have been the golden age of the camellia. It was an age when the American Camellia Society had its beginning, when Dave Strothers dedicated Massee Lane for a headquarters and an age when growers, exhibitors, and shows were popping up like dandelions. Why? We look to the activities of those men to find their motivation.
The late 30’s and 40’s were the formative years for camellia culture in Birmingham. In those years Birmingham had some pretty rough winters. Seasons that were not conducive to growing a flower that only bloomed in the winter. Oh there were some camellias around. Their year round greenery made for a nice landscaping bush. A winter that was mild enough to allow bloom production was just icing on the cake.
Slight of stature, big of heart, Lee Poe had a passion. First for dahlias, soup plate size dahlias and then camellias. He didn’t discover camellias until he was in his forties. With that discovery he fell head over heals with a love that followed him to his grave.
Lee Poe was not alone. He was surrounded by friends who were smitten by cupid’s camellia arrow. Camellia lovers that played such an important role in camellias golden age. Men that left those of us who follow with, not just memories, but new varieties like Magic City and Jean’s Unsurpassable along with Lee Poe's seedlings. Ralph Davidson, with the angel holding the inverted torch standing on his doorstep, won the Peer Sasanqua Award with his Ruby Davidson. Mike Wesson the last of the breed just a few weeks ago closed the door on those who were so much a part of Birmingham’s early passion.
Weekends were camellia sit-ins back then. These camellia friends would gather at one another’s greenhouse to discuss nothing but camellias. Out of these gatherings came the Men’s Camellia Society of Birmingham, the Birmingham – Bessemer Camellia Society, and the present Birmingham Camellia Society.
It didn’t take Lee Poe and his friends long to discover what a camellia “fringe area” was. A good freeze before a 1937 or 1938 show left some crest fallen growers with some dull brown flowers. To beat the weather the Birmingham crowd started putting up greenhouses. The competitive spirit that pitted my blooms against yours extended to greenhouses. Lee Poe started with a make-do shelter of windows. Competition and a growing collection led to a National Greenhouse, then an addition and then another house. By the late 40’s Lee Poe had 1,300 square feet under glass and between 200 and 300 plants.
Leading the camellia charge in Birmingham were four men that were dubbed, “Birmingham’s Four Horsemen”: Lee Poe the seedling specialist, Gordon Moughan the “tray” specialist, Lee Turlington the “sweepstakes” specialist and Holden Naff the “reticulata” specialist. Between them they could put on a right good show.
These men and their colleagues started the tradition of a Birmingham Show in this fringe area city. And what a tradition! The 1950 Show in Birmingham filled the Municipal Auditorium with 5,000 blooms and 25,000 ticketed spectators. Competition was fierce and sometimes cut throat. Plants in the greenhouse were mislabeled. Lee Poe kept a notebook describing the place of each one of his plants. At one of the shows Lee Poe entered an unusual seeding. Afraid one of his friends would take a liking to it he put some kind of chemical in the cup holding the bloom so no one could get the scion. Whatever he used stunk up the place but no one got the scion.
Cut throat may not be the right word. The heated Birmingham competition was professional competition. For one show Lee Poe cut a seedling that he didn’t recognize as one of his. He took it to a show in an attempt to find the rightful owner. As it turned out it belonged to Matt Lawson of Montgomery. Matt let “Buck” Haden place the plant in his greenhouse. For what reason we do not know. After “Buck’s” death his widow sold the plant, along with others, to Lee Poe. Finding the true owner Lee Poe entered the seedling under Matt’s name and it won the best seedling award.
The Birmingham group was active in efforts to expand the camellia family. When Elizabeth II was either crowned or married (memory doesn’t recall which) the group sent over a ton of camellias as a token of our friendship. Under the leadership of Frank Lynch the Birmingham group led the campaign to name the Japonica as the Alabama State Flower.
Following the lead of Ray Lange a number of the Birmingham group joined the American Camellia Society shortly after it was incorporated in 1946. We still find an interest in assuring a viable society with a home base at Massee Lane. We can’t say that the enthusiasm is as strong today as it was then.
Those individuals who were exposed to and caught the passion exhibited by the Four Horsemen and their colleagues have passed on, their legacy has not. Influence such as we see in Lee Poe has survived the grave. Lee Poe left us with nine new varieties: Louise Hairston, Louise Hairston variegated, Evelyn Poe, Evelyn Poe variegated, Evelyn Poe Blush, Evelyn Poe Pink, April Lynn Poe, Ray Lange and one originally named Ludy Chappel (then sold and registered under a different name). Seedlings are one way to keep the passion going in the declining years.
Lee Poe left more to camellia posterity than new varieties. His wife Evelyn’s physical activity was limited by an early bout with polio, but not her talent. She painted pictures of Lee’s seedlings that live on the walls of his daughter’s breakfast room. Lee Poe’s son Lee Poe, Jr. enjoys an active roll in the Aiken Camellia Society (Past President), the Atlanta Coast Camellia Society (Past President), and the American Camellia Society (Past State Director for South Carolina). His leadership in the Aiken Society has not been confined to the position of the presiding office he once held. He is a worker. He serves as Aiken’s Show Chairman. He actively shares his passion with those who are bitten by the camellia bug even to the point of helping move bushes and plant new acquisitions. His wife Dot is active in all aspects of the Camellia Society but particularly in the Annual Show.
Shortly before his death Lee Poe told his daughter Louise Hairston that she had better pay attention to what he was doing with camellias because one day it would all be her responsibility. And so it came to be. After Lee’s death Louise took over his plants and his greenhouse, eliminated the invasive petal blight, started showing his flowers, became a judge and serves as permanent treasurer of the Birmingham Society. Until her car was totaled going to a show in Aiken, she was a regular exhibitor and a winner at shows in the states surrounding Alabama.
Talking to a group in Nashville, Tennessee Dr. Dave Scheibert (who passed on as these words were written) attributed Louise’s success at shows to the fact that she married a lawyer and put him in charge of fertilizer. Her husband qualified as a judge and was Show Chairman of the Birmingham Show until 2006 when he shared that duty with Dr. Bill Dodson.
Louise’s son Bill Hairston, III was president of the Birmingham Camellia Society. As a recorder for the Birmingham Show he initiated a program of taking pictures of the winning blooms and the respective awards which pictures are presented to the winners at the awards banquet and posted on the web. (Those pictures are on display at www.Hairston3.com).
These founders of the Birmingham Camellia Society left a society that has had its ups and downs. Because of the enthusiasm passed down by these founders it has survived the downs and enjoyed the ups. Today, under the leadership of Dave Glass it is a small but active group that touches a wide variety of folk in and around Birmingham. In addition to an active roll in the Camellia House of the Birmingham Botanical Garden it produces workshops on all aspects of camellia culture. Birmingham has seen the emphasis move from protected flowers to unprotected as the winters have taken a milder turn. The presence of an ever increasing number of local outdoor blooms at the Birmingham Show is evidence of a growing camellia family and a growing competitive family.
The passion of these early Birmingham growers is a prime example of bread cast on the waters. As we look to the future of the camellia family in the Southeast and in particular at ACS in general we do well to catch the enthusiasm exhibited by these men of yesterday.
“We can look to our past and find our future”. Then start where we are to make for a better camellia world.