Almost all public gardens are designed primarily to be visited sometime between spring and fall, certainly not winter. True enough, there are a few gardens with large public greenhouses that are open in the winter, but even there, winter is definitely the off season. But I know at least one garden that is an exception to the rule: Massee Lane Gardens, in the US state of Georgia. This is very much a garden you need to visit during the winter.
I visited this garden a few days ago, in the cold of February. And it was an unusually cold morning to visit, by the way, just above freezing when I first arrived at about 10 am. In spite of the cold, though, the garden filled with flowers. Why? Because it specializes in camellias (Camellia spp.) and most species in this group of Asian shrubs bloom during the winter. This is especially true of the popular C. japonica and its hybrids. In Georgia, these plants are usually at their peak bloom in February and indeed, that’s when the garden hosts its annual Camellia Festival. It must be said that, this year, several varieties had finished their bloom by early February due to an exceptionally mild December and January. Even so, there were still hundreds of camellias to be admired.
Home of the American Camellia Association
Massee Lane Gardens offers one of largest camellia collections in the world: more than 1000 varieties over 4 hectares of developed garden. It is also the headquarters of the American Camellia Association. The bulk of the collection grows in a rectangular section dominated by pine trees linked by brick paths. The pines are not there so much to shade the plants (camellias do well in partial shade, but actually prefer full sun) as to help protect against severe frost, always a risk in this part of Georgia. Pine needles scattered on the ground also help by creating a thick carpet that helps moderate the temperature.
When you visit the gardens, you’ll see all kinds of camellias. Some are small shrubs less than 3 feet (1 m) high while others trees up to 30 feet (10 m) tall; some are lean and lanky, others, dense and bushy, and leaves can range from tiny and pointed to large and oblong. Some species have tiny flowers only ½ inch (1 cm) in diameter, while others have substantial flowers up to 4 ½ inches (12 cm) across. The blooms can be single or semi-double, with a mass of yellow stamens in the center or so fully double the stamens may be entirely absent. Most are pink, red or white and several are attractively variegated.
There is also a large public greenhouse where less cold tolerant species are grown, including, C. reticulata and its hybrids, the camellias that have the largest flowers. The greenhouse is also home to several rare tropical species, such as C. niditissima, whose small flowers are yellow, a very rare color in the Camellia genus.
I was surprised to see a long row tea plants in the garden. I don’t know why I was surprised. I honestly did know that the tea plant is a camellia (C. sinensis), but somehow I’d forgotten. Tea is of course made from the leaves of this species. No tea plant was in bloom when I visited, unfortunately. Apparently tea plants are quite weedy, self-sowing with abandon… that’s something I would never have guessed!
Massee Lane Gardens offers more than camellias, though. During my visit, there were a few particularly large magnolias in bloom (although the flowers struggled to open on such a chilly day) and also a large plantation of pecan trees, completely dormant in February. Plus there is a Japanese garden – just beautiful in winter! – and, so summer visitors will have something to feast their eyes on, a daylily garden and a rose garden, since camellias won’t be in bloom when they visit.
Another attraction – and one I’ve never in any other gardens! – are two galleries, one in the main building, the other in a separate pavilion, that host a huge collection of porcelain sculptures from noted American sculptor Edward Marshall Boehm, famous for his realistic sculptures of birds and wildlife. You had to look twice to see they weren’t living specimens.
There was also a nursery selling camellia plants… that I chose not to visit since I wouldn’t have been able to bring any camellias back to Canada without a phytosanitary certificate and an import permit. Sometimes the safest thing to do is to avoid temptation entirely!
Your Garden Visit
If you want to admire the camellias at Massee Lane Garden, it’s important to go at the right season. There are a few fall-blooming species and some that open into April, but late January through February will give you the best displays.
Massee Lane Garden is located in Fort Valley, Georgia, about 1 hour 45 minutes south of Atlanta. It is open all year from 10h to 16h (13h to 16h on Sunday) and a visit only costs the modest sum of $5 ($4 for seniors 55 and older, free for under 12). So if you’re in the area…
Massee Lane Gardens
100 Massee Ln.
Fort Valley, GA 31030