Massee Lane Gardens has one of the world's finest collections of camellias
One of the world’s finest camellia collections exists at Massee Lane Gardens. The home of the American Camellia Society since 1968, Massee Lane actually has several separate camellia gardens.
THE HISTORIC GARDENS
Known as Massee Lane, this property has a very interesting history. Needham Massee, born in North Carolina in 1779, acquired this land through the lottery system in1827 after the Creek Indians were moved westward through a series of treaties. The extensive plantation covered several miles from what is now Marshallville to the edge of Fort Valley. The Massee residence, built in 1827, is in good condition today and is owned by a descendant of Needlam Massee – John C. Walker III. This land is directly adjacent to land owned by the American Camellia Society.
Massee Lane was purchased by Mr. Dave Strother and a partner, Dr. McArthur, in the early 1900s as a peach farm. Mr. Strother came to Fort Valley from Walhalla, South Carolina in 1903 to manage the Fort Valley Oil Company soon after he graduated from Wofford College.
Nearby Marshallville, a small town three miles south of Massee Lane was settled by South Carolinians who probably brought camellias with them. Mr. Strother had long admired the many plantings of camellias still to be found along Main Street and at some of the lovely homes. Some of the camellias were brought from Augusta in the late 1860s or 1870s.
The formal camellia gardens at Massee Lane began as the private garden of David C. Strother in the 1930s. In June 1936 a disastrous windstorm swept across Massee Lane destroying the peach crop, a packing shed, and blew down a large pecan tree in front of the overseer’s house. This pecan tree was replaced by a Camellia japonica ‘Elegans’. This plant later died, but was liked so well that additional camellias were added to the front yard. This small planting was the beginning of the large number of camellias, which Mr. Strother planted at Massee Lane. Mr. Strother soon expanded the garden acre by acre, built four greenhouses, and laid out brick walkways. There were few camellia growers or nurseries that he did not visit. Each camellia planted at Massee Lane had an interesting history as friends considered it an honor for Mr. Strother to add their new variety to his collection which was considered among the finest in the country.
As his love affair with camellias grew, Strother soon surrounded his farmhouse with camellias. He then began the gardens that are now Massee Lane. Year by year, he expanded the garden borders to accommodate the new camellias he wanted to grow. It is said that he never included a camellia he didn’t like, even if a friend had given it to him! The original brick walkways installed under Strother’s direction are still in place and allow for easy viewing of much of this area. In 1966 Mr. Strother donated these gardens and the rest of his 150-acre farm to the American Camellia Society to serve as its headquarters.
Currently, over 1,000 varieties of camellias can be found in these gardens. While the largest number of cultivars is of Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanquas, Camellia hybrids and a number of Camellia species add variety to these plantings. Bloom starts in September and continues through the winter months into spring, with the display peaking in February and March. All throughout fall and winter, the fragrance of tea olive, Osmanthus fragrans, and that of winter daphne, Daphne odora, from January through March, add much delight to a visit to this part of Massee Lane.
The floral display does not stop with the end of the camellia season, however. Camellias continue through March into April and, though their numbers are fewer than during their peak, the same gardens are graced with large plantings of a long succession of azaleas, both native and exotic species and hybrids. There are also Lady Banks roses at this time. Hydrangea and Satsuki Azaleas bloom in May. The hydrangeas continue through June and beyond.
MILLSTONES AND MILE MARKERS
A great deal of thought, time, and money went into the development of Massee Lane. There are 42 granite gristmill stones worked into the walks or placed as seats throughout the garden. These were collected from the middle Georgia area. Strother collected 39 millstones from local abandoned gristmills, incorporating them into the brick pathways and fashioning seats out of the rest and placing them strategically throughout his garden. He also collected granite mile markers, many with the numbers still visible, from the Old Wire Road. This ran from Washington D. C. to New Orleans, passing a few miles north of Fort Valley. The road took its name from the first telegraph line in the Southeast. The Old Wire Road takes its name from the first telegraph line in the Southeast. These historic markers add a whole new dimension to the garden.THE SEEDLING FOREST
This approximately two-acre garden is an area where Dave Strother planted camellia seedlings as well as new cultivars for evaluation. It has a wonderful “secret garden” feel to it. Work is under way to make it more accessible. There are some real hidden treasures waiting to be discovered here.
THE T.J. SMITH MEMORIAL GREENHOUSE
In 1969 the Thomas Jefferson Smith Memorial Greenhouse was built to shelter frost-tender camellia species, as well as to demonstrate the art of growing camellias under glass for the production of show flowers. It is a landscaped planting with other plants to complement the camellias. Other fixtures include brick walking paths and a central reflecting pool. The greenhouse honors the very first ACS life member, Mr. Thomas Jefferson Smith.
THE ACKERMAN CAMELLIA GARDEN
Dr. William Ackerman has spent nearly 50 years working to improve camellias. His breeding work has produced fragrant hybrids, cold hardy hybrids that greatly extend the area in which camellias can be grown, and yellow flowered hybrids. This planting strives to exhibit all of his hybrids.
THE NEW CAMELLIA GARDEN
The development of this garden continues with the plan for it to feature several different camellia collections. The Camellia species collection continues to be expanded to be as complete a collection of the wild Camellia species as can be safely grown out in the open in middle Georgia. (Tender species will be grown in the heated greenhouses.) The purposes of this collection are to evaluate the landscape potential of these less frequently grown species, to expand awareness of other members of the genus Camellia, and to preserve a gene-pool of these species, a number of which are rare in their wild habitat.
A demonstration tea planting will also be established for educational purposes. A collection of those species of Camellia that are grown for tea, as well as tea cultivars, will be exhibited. Another planting will feature those Camellia species that are grown for tea oil, one of the finest culinary oils. A collection of fragrant camellias will be another feature of this garden. Finally, the large size of this area allows for the addition of other collections in the future, assuring flexibility and options as the garden grows.