Thelma camellia

It’s difficult to resist the allure of camellias. With their colorful blooms offset by shiny, evergreen leaves, camellias put on a colorful show each year from late fall to early winter.

Thelma Mercer, who owned Mercer Botanic Gardens’ original 14.5 acres with her husband, Charles, planted many camellias between the 1930s and the 1970s. While beautiful and hardy, many of Thelma’s original camellias, including White by the Gate, Professor Sargent and Purple Dawn, died over the years and were replaced by Mercer staff. The three remaining varieties, the early autumn-blooming sasanqua, Maiden’s Blush, and the later blooming japonicas, Debutante and Fannie Bolis, grow near a pond by the Mercer staff building, where the Mercers’ homestead once sat.

Once the gardens opened in 1974, Mercer employees began adding to this collection, planting many camellias in the Forest Floor Garden, an area then covered with numerous shade trees, which protected the camellias from the hot afternoon sun. These plants produced many years of beautiful blooms until a series of natural disasters hit the area.

Disaster strikes

Hurricane Ike roared into the Texas Gulf Coast in 2008, causing significant wind and water damage across the region. The Forest Floor was one of the hardest-hit areas at Mercer, with winds downing more than 40 large trees. Falling limbs and branches crushed many mature camellias, while fast-moving floodwaters uprooted more.

Although nature will constantly challenge Mercer’s expanding camellia collection, they continue to thrive. The majority can be found in the central gardens, while more than 100 Moonglow and Rose of Autumn varieties grow throughout Storey Lake and the Creekside Ramble. Other species and hard-to-find cultivars grow in Mercer’s nursery.

Once the berms along Cypress Creek are rejuvenated, Mercer staff members plan to add new camellias to the area for color and soil stability. The Mercer Botanical Center Herbarium also contains 128 dried and preserved specimens, many with colors as vivid as if they were on the stem, to ensure the camellias’ genetic data lasts for generations.

As the weather cools, camellia season will return once again to Mercer. The sasanqua camellias will produce buds and flowers, putting on a show for Mercer visitors. Attend Mercer regularly through the spring to see these colorful gems brighten the gardens during the gray days of winter.

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