The first Camellias reached Sacramento, February 7, 1852. These first specimens, according to A.E. Morrison, Sacramento County Agricultural Commissioner, arrived in Sacramento, February 7, 1852. They were imported from Japan by James L.L.F. Warren, a seed store proprietor, at Front and J Streets. James Warren’s first plants came to Sacramento by circuitous route.
They were shipped from New York to Panama, across the Isthmus to the Pacific and again by ship to San Francisco by riverboat to Sacramento. The popularity of the camellia grew until the flood of 1861 and 1862 by the Sacramento and American rivers destroyed many of the gardens. Interest in the camellia dwindled until about 1910 when a move was started to make Sacramento know as “The Camellia Capital”.
However, by 1915, the camellia again declined from public interest. The camellia, for the next eight years was a forgotten plant, that is, until 1923, when a nursery from Southern California secretly bought a large number of camellias for a very low price and shipped them South. When the local citizens became aware of this activity, they became aroused and interest in the camellia once again was revived. But, how to maintain that interest? The answer, the ladies of the ever potent Tuesday Club; Camellia Shows!
The first camellia show was held in April 1924, in the David Lubin School, headed by Mrs. Charles Gilmore, Chairman. After three shows, with increasing interest from year to year, the Sacramento Garden Club was formed and each year the conducted the Annual Camellia Show. For many years, from 1931 to 1944, the chairman was Mrs. H. Pisani, who developed many of the programs that included a census of camellia plants in Sacramento, and finally a Children’s Camellia Parade. The shows became an established event in early March of each year, but increase in size of the show required more space in which to hold the show. As a result, the show was moved to the Memorial Auditorium.
By 1943, enthusiasm over camellias had reached such a level that the November 17, 1943 meeting of the Camellia Planting Committee, Jerry Olrich, State Gardener, made an impulsive motion, “Mr. President, I move that we form a Camellia Society in Sacramento right here and now”. The motion was seconded and carried by unanimous vote and in 1943 the Camellia Society was born.The dues were a whopping $2.00 per year!
Over the years, the goal of the Camellia Society was to develop a community interest in the camellia by means of various publicity campaigns, such as having merchants tie their spring sales ads in the Camellia Show and Parade, out of which came the Camellia Festival, with the show being the focal point of the Festival activities. The committee also was functional for the planting of a number of camellias in the Capitol Park, William Land Park, McKinley Park, and each of the local hospitals. In the Capitol park more than 800 different varieties can be found throughout, with blossoms in white, deep red, and every shade in between. Some are even striped and speckled in a combination of colors. Many of the grove's 186 camellias are heirloom varieties and no longer available commercially. The grove is especially beautiful from fall to spring when the dark, leathery leaves complement the colorful blossoms.
During Camellia Week of February 20th to 25th, 1950, the Camellia Society had a goal of urging residents to plant up to 50,000 new camellias. Cooperation of 10 local nurseries, 20 local stores and three newspapers came to the aid of the society in order to accomplish this goal. The plants were to sell for $1.50 each. This, indeed would make Sacramento the Camellia City of the world, having in 1941 adopted the camellia as the city’s official flower.
After more than a century of camellia culture and 32 years of camellia shows and national recognition of outstanding camellia shows in the United States, the Camellia Society of Sacramento felt that it was time to expand the camellia theme.
With the vision and energy of an outstanding camellia person, Ed Combatalade, the idea of a Camellia Festival was presented to civic leaders in various aspects of community life. Their response was enthusiastic that the Camellia Festival Association was formed to work with the Camellia Society for the First Annual Camellia Festival, February 1955. Many events for the festival were considered. They are as follows:
Camellia Queen Contest; Contestants are from California State University (Sac State), Sacramento City College (Sacramento Junior College), American River College (Grant Technical College) and Consumnes River College.
Greater Sacramento Chamber of Commerce Breakfast; at this event the Queen was announced.
Children’s Camellia Parade; staged by the Sacramento City Unified School District, County Schools and City Recreation and Parks Department.
Camellia Ball; Crowning of the Camellia Queen.
Annual Camellia Show; held in the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium.
On February 25, 1955, at the monthly breakfast of the Greater Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, one of the world’s authorities on camellias spoke on ”Camellias around the World”. This was the theme of both the First Annual Children’s Parade and the 31st Annual Camellia Show, which ended the 11 day festival.
It is any wonder that Sacramento is the Camellia Capital of the World?
In 1986 the festival encompassed over 30 events, including golf tournaments, sailboat races, folk dancing, art and photographic exhibits, ballet, the country’s only 24 hour,100 mile foot race, international exhibits, and a choral concert.
In 1981, Dr. and Mrs. D. Jackson Faustman, along with Molly Kimura, who is a flower arranging instructor in Japanese culture, were instrumental in bringing 22 residents to our 57th Annual Camellia Show. Matsuyama is a city roughly the same size as Sacramento and has declared itself as Sacramento’s “sister city”. They also have an annual Camellia Show each year and a group of 14 Sacramentans were fortunate enough to pay a return visit to Matsuyama’s show in April of 1981. Since then, our society has formed a close bond with the camellia enthusiasts of our “sister city”, sharing camellia culture and learning more about each other.
Funding for the festival dwindled as did the festival over time, although the Annual Camellia Show continues.
May we continue to cherish the delicate beauty of the camellia in the years to come. The Camellia Society of Sacramento continues to grow and flourish.
Today, the society continues to support the goal of the original group- encourage the community to enjoy and grow camellias.