Jim Dickson had a 1 in 10,000 chance that the collection of 100 japonica camellias at his North Augusta home would yield a variety worthy of submission to the American Camellia Society.
It happened once in 1997, and he named that flower after his wife, Carolyn. When he had the chance to do it again this year, he chose his mother, Lucile, for the honor.
Mr. Dickson, a past president of the Aiken Camellia Society, surprised his mother with an announcement at a recent meeting of the Iris Garden Club, of which she is a member.
New camellia varieties are extremely rare, even when they're propagated in a controlled environment, and this one was a chance seedling.
"We didn't do any fancy hybridization with pollen; this is God's gift to all of us from a natural seed," Mr. Dickson said.
The Lucile Dickson camellia, which was first propagated as a seedling in 1992, produces a deep-pink bloom, about 3.5 inches in diameter and 2 inches tall, with medium-size leaves and a yellow stamen with a flare of pink. Mr. Dickson said the goal was to find something both unique and attractive. After 13 years of work, he was satisfied, and submitted his specimen in March. He heard back a month later.
"We're partial to the red and the pinks; we like those that are somewhat ostentatious, even those that are large and gaudy," he said.
Camellias have been a big part of Mr. Dickson's family history. Growing up in Hephzibah, he learned about grafting and rooting from his father, James D. Dickson. His uncle Warren Dickson propagated a unique camellia for his grandmother, Bessie, in the early 1980s, and his uncle Jim was the president of the Coastal Carolina Camellia Society in Charleston, S.C.
Lucile Dickson said her son kept the news of the flower a secret until the last minute. The day before the announcement, she thought it was odd that her son said she needed to get her hair fixed up.
"I thought, 'Well, they've never been so critical before,' " she said, laughing. "It felt great; I was just in shock. I've been around camellias my whole life, and my whole family loves flowers, but this was just a pleasant surprise."
Tom Johnson, national horticulturist for the American Camellia Society in Fort Valley, Ga., said the chances a gardener will grow a flower unique enough to name are roughly 1 in 1,000 for a grower who pollinates their own flowers, (a "hybridizer") and 1 in 10,000 for random mixes like Mr. Dickson's. The society documents 30-40 new varieties a year, and most of them are submitted by hybridizers.
The tradition of naming a flower after a relative is a time-honored one, and the society keeps records dating back to 1945.
"I get calls all the time from people saying, 'My grandfather named a flower after me,' and I can go back and say 'Yes, he named it after you in 1952 in Shreveport, La.,'" he said. "It's really a honor, you can't buy the right to be named after one."
Mr. Johnson was the judge who verified that the "Lucile Dickson" was unique. He noted that most people who propagate camellias try to create unique characteristics in the plants' flower, but research has also been done to find weather-resistant camellias. There are Northern strains that can survive temperatures as low as 15 degrees below zero, and he's experimenting with strains that can withstand extreme heat. He also said the plant is unique in its appeal to men.
"It blooms in the winter, and we men like things when they do things they're not supposed to do," he said with a laugh. "It's also idiot-proof, because it's grown in the dead of the winter."
He said families embrace the plant because it can easily live hundreds of years, and it's not unusual for children to take over the care of a camellia their grandfather once owned.
Mr. Dickson agreed that blooming in the dead of winter is a major part of the camellia's appeal. At this time of the year, he spends only two to three hours a week with his plants. But when winter comes, there's pruning to be done and blooms to be selected, cut, prepared and preserved so they can travel and be displayed at festivals throughout the South. He said careful attention to the flowers is rewarded.
"You just follow the standard steps of pruning and spraying and fertilizing," he said, "and they grow themselves."
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