Presentation for the ICS Melbourne Congress 2006

Text by Eli Margrete S. Stølsvik

After I first met with Dr. William L. Ackerman, I knew that my dream of experiencing red Camellias blooming in the snow in Norway could come true.  At that time I did not see exactly how to structure the process, but I decided to be open for coincidences along my way and see what would happen.

This Presentation Includes Four Sections

First I will briefly give some background on why I started the project «The Camellia Moves North».  Second, I will give an overview of what has been done at the professional level and among hobby gardeners to encourage camellias to set roots in Norway. Third, I will present special challenges we are facing, and share with you what we have done so far to get positive results in this project.  Finally, throughout the presentation, I will read some of my poems to emphasize my poetic approach to the camellia.  The poems will be read in Norwegian, with the English translation shown on the slides.

Background for the Project

The first time I saw a camellia in full bloom it woke up a part within me that I did not know was there.  I have tried to capture this situation in the poem «Encounter».

As a gardener in Norway, my encounter with the camellia took me into a lonely hobby.  In my part of the world, the camellia has been known as an indoor plant, difficult to grow even indoors.  Most often nurseries and garden centers have sold camellias as indoor plants, sometimes under the name C. japonica or C. williamsii, but most often just the name Kamelia, with a K, the Scandinavian way of spelling the name. I decided for myself that I would enjoy camellias when traveling abroad, and I made myself comfortable with this decision. Despite this fact, somehow the camellia did not want to let me go. Over and over again coincidences put me get back into contact with this plant in one way or another.  The poem «The Name» can describe some of my feelings in this period.

While living and working in Iceland, as far from the camellia world as possible, I wrote the poem «Camellia». (slide) At the same time I wrote this poem, I met the American photographer Fred Shermer.  These two happenings turned out to be the starting point for my dream of experiencing red camellias blooming in the snow in Norway. I started searching for hobby gardeners in my hometown of Stavanger who might have planted a camellia outdoors in spite of the advice from the nurseries.  A total of 17 gardeners already mysteriously growing camellias outdoors in my neighborhood responded to an article by me in the local paper.

Knowingly or not, my neighbors had taken advantage of local microclimates suitable for the plant.  The Norwegian coastline is close to the end of the Gulf Stream, producing a number of microclimates among sheltered places along the fjords – some not unlike places in the mid-Atlantic states.  The oldest plant I found, now 17 years old and 4 meters (13 feet) tall, is a Camellia japonica hybrid which blooms every year in profusion.

What has been done on the Professional Level and among Hobby Gardeners?

All this evidence of plants and people pushing frontiers gave me the support I needed to start searching for professionals who could start a research project in cold hardiness.  In this period Fred Shermer was of tremendous help as he motivated me to learn more and traveled with me to see camellias in bloom.   One day he invited me to Dr. Ackerman’s presentation «Growing Camellias in Cold Climates».  I jumped on a flight to Washington D.C. for his presentation on 2.April 2005. This meeting with Dr. Ackerman turned out to be a new «Encounter».  I was now convinced that starting a pioneer-project to have camellias tested in my home country Norway could be worth working on, and I named the project «The Camellia Moves North» to make sure it turned out to be important in my life. At this point I was really in love with the camellia as an ornamental plant, and I loved how it crystallized in my writings.

  • The first cold-hardy camellias come to Norway

In early July 2005, Dr. Ackerman got in contact with Pat and Herb Short from the International Camellia Society (ICS) when they were planning to visit Norway.  Meeting with the Shorts in Bergen was a wonderful event.  They brought four small plants in their hand luggage, the very first fall-blooming cold-hardy camellias in the country.  The plants were handed over to two arboretums, Rogaland Arboret in Stavanger and Det Norske Arboret (the Norwegian Arboretum) in Bergen.  They were all in bloom in 2005.

  • Cold-hardy camellia cuttings come to Norway

In late July 2005, Dr. Ackerman sent cuttings from his cold-hardy C. oleifera hybrids.

A total of 92 cuttings from 23 different hybrids were taken care of at Det Norske Arboret in Bergen. The feedback from the arboretum is that 85% have set roots, and do look healthy.  The new plants will be shared between the Stavanger Botanic Garden in Stavanger, the Ringve Botanic Garden in Trondheim and the Norske Arboret in Bergen.

  • Cold-hardy camellia seeds come to Norway

In November 2005, Dr. Ackerman provided me with a huge number of seed.  In my search for potential seedling growers, I found still more gardeners with camellias planted outdoors (although somewhat recently), some as far north as Ålesund. During November and December the seeds were shared between eager gardeners and professors working for public gardens throughout the southern part of Norway, from Kristiansand to Trondheim.

  • Establishing a Camellia Garden as part of the Stavanger Botanic Garden

On 3. April 2006 the Rogaland Arboret decided to start testing camellias in the Stavanger Botanic Garden.  This is an important step forward in professional testing and documentation.  Professor Finn Ervik in Stavanger and Professor Per Salvesen in Bergen are now growing camellias for research, using the cuttings and seeds sent by Dr. Ackerman.  The professors have committed time and resources to take the project forward.

The Challenges in Front of us

When I started planning for this project, I foresaw a challenging process.  The challenge can be seen on different levels, both personal and professional. I will list some of the challenges I have identified so far, and I am sure even more will pop up as the project develops.

  • The need for changing attitudes might prove the biggest challenge.

Most people, including Norwegians, hold tight to the assumption that Norway is so far north that it will be too cold to even think of growing camellias.  This alleged fact still makes nurseries and garden centers bring in the cheapest plants without asking about their cold hardiness.

  • Our extreme variation in summer temperature and differences in sunlight might affect the blooming and growing patterns.

We are now curious about how the variation in summer temperatures will affect the plants’ ability to develop buds, and how the extreme differences in sunlight throughout the year will affect the growing and blooming patterns.  During the long summer days, with up to 20 hours of daylight, the plant may need protection from direct sunlight.  The perfect shaded place during the summertime, however, might not be the best place for the spring or fall, when the sun is low and may burn or dry out the leaves from a slanting direction.  Further, our short winter days, with no more than 4 to 5 hours of daylight, may put too much stress on the late fall and winter blooming hybrids, and thereby prevent them from opening their buds. The coastal winds will present yet a different challenge, especially during the spring.

  • My personal challenge will be to accept more people taking part in managing the process.

Having had this project as my own «baby» has been a very nice hobby for several years.  As the project takes more time I will need to bring in more people and start team-working.  This will be a big challenge in itself, since I am used to deciding matters for myself without even thinking of asking others if they find it in line with their values, needs and wants.

Strategies Chosen for Meeting the Challenges

  • Articles in the Norwegian Garden Society’s magazine and yearbook.

I have written a couple articles for the Norwegian Garden Society’s magazine and yearbook 2005.  The magazine and yearbook have been sent to all members and will be followed up with another article this fall.

  • Camellia presentations in local garden society meetings.

I have given eleven camellia presentations in local garden society meetings, sharing my joy and knowledge about cold-hardy camellias and the project so far.  I will give five presentations this fall, and have been asked to tour along the coast from Bergen to Trondheim in 2007.

  • Cold-hardy camellias for sale in one nursery in Stavanger.

One nursery in Stavanger finally managed to bring in sixteen different camellias regarded as cold-hardy from a company in the Netherlands.  The only Ackerman-hybrid available was ‘Snow Flurry’.  The nursery is now looking for new places to buy more of the Ackerman hybrids for 2007.

  • Establising test beds for cold-hardy camellias.

In addition to the camellia gardens as part of the Stavanger Botanic Garden and the Norske Arboret we are now discussing the possibility of establishing more exposed test beds.  We are hoping to find a budget to pay for one research fellow who can take care of these more exposed test beds.

  • Founding the Norwegian Camellia Society.

As the project has developed, there are now a number of eager camellia lovers and growers convinced that camellias can survive Norway’s winters along the coast.  During the early spring I found that it was time to bring more people into the project.  The interim board had its first meeting on the 25. April 200.

Summing up

All the risk factors mentioned in this presentation can be arguments to convince people that camellias cannot survive in Norway.  Nevertheless, the camellias actually growing and blooming in sheltered places along the fjords do not seem to need convincing. Of special concern, however, is the fact that we can have some hard frosts in April, after having had temperatures up to 15C (59F) in March, highlighting the importance of selecting the right microclimate.

We have evidence that the change in temperature will affect the blooming time. In 2005 the spring was mild and the big C. japonica hybrid in Stavanger was in full bloom in mid-April.  In 2006, however, the spring was relatively cold. The same plant in mid-April still showed no sign of opening its buds in the near future.

It still remains to be seen how Dr. Ackerman’s hybrids will develop in Norway. Until now we have recommended that people start out with early fall-blooming and late spring-blooming types, to make sure that the plants and flowers will not be harmed by the lack of daylight and frost.  As the project develops the next couple years, I know that hobby gardeners (myself included) will try out winter-blooming types.

Meeting with international camellia lovers has opened a new camellia «world» for me, a world that has directly inspired my poetry writings and my effort to take the project «The Camellia Moves North» forward.  Within a few years we may welcome you to enjoy red camellias blooming in the snow in Norway, or at least to enjoy our camellia gardens during other seasons.  Hopefully we will also have significant test results to share in the future.