Seemingly a world apart from the intensity of urban Northern California, majestic oaks tower overhead and camellias cover the hillside as we enter the driveway of this enchanting Bay Area estate. Here, in the heart of Woodside, on the San Francisco Peninsula, serenity surrounds us on this sunny March afternoon, with birds singing and squirrels scurrying up and down the magnificent old trees. We have been invited by the owner, who was a friend of my father’s over thirty years ago, to come for a visit and to learn about her garden. Burgundy-leafed Loropetalum chinense cascades over a stone wall, picking up the red and pink tones of nearby camellias, while the gray stone echoes the color of the low French-inspired house just ahead. Yellow daffodils—a sign of early spring—catch the sunlight. The owner’s collection of over three hundred camellias in full bloom stretches in every direction. Planted far enough apart to reach maturity without crowding each other, these specimen plants stand as individuals, allowing appreciation of not only their beautiful blooms, but the habit and form of each plant as well. A touch of humor emerges near the house as we spot whimsical garden signs for “Fighting Irish,” “Notre Dame,” and “Great Dane Crossing.” This is the garden of Marjorie O’Malley and her late husband Charles. Marge’s unique sense of humor is legendary: it is her great Dane, Karl, whose message can be heard on the answering machine, reminding visitors to bring him cookies if they insist on coming to the house.
How it all Began
Marge was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She always felt a strong tie to the University of Notre Dame: her father, Hubert A Mendelson, served on the advisory board for the College of Business Administration, while her mother attended nearby Saint Mary’s College. In 1953, Marge and her husband moved to Chatsworth, in Southern California, where, according to friends, they developed a beautiful garden. Throughout her life, Marge’s loves have been music, horticulture, and riding, the last a passion shared with her husband. Soon after their move to southern California, Marge met brothers Julius and Joe Nuccio, owners of the highly respected Nuccio’s Camellia and Azalea Nursery (now Nuccio’s Nurseries, Inc). Marge quickly became an avid camellia collector, adding new introductions to her garden each year, as soon as they were released. According to Julius, some of her early favorites included Camellia japonica ‘Guilio Nuccio’, ‘Tiffany’, ‘Tomorrow Park Hill’, ‘Betty Sheffield Supreme’, and ‘Kick Off’; her favorite Camellia reticulata was ‘Howard Asper’.
In 1966, when the O’Malleys moved to Woodside and began to develop their garden from a design by Jack Stafford, the Nuccio brothers moved her camellias up to the Bay Area; in 1969, they planted a hedge of Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ to serve as a horse jump in her riding ring. In those early years, Marge and her husband, both accomplished riders, exercised their hunter-jumpers right there on the property. The formal terrace behind their home overlooked the riding ring, and was frequently used for entertaining friends, particularly their friends from the Peninsula Camellia Society. Among them was Jack Mandarich, a well-known camellia hybridizer who later became president of the American Camellia Society (ACS). He actually moved the O’Malley’s barn so that a second greenhouse, specifically for camellias, could be added. Marge took her new hobby seriously, becoming a certified ACS judge, traveling the circuit, and entering and judging camellia shows all over California. With the help and encouragement of her friend Jack, she tried her hand at hybridizing and grafting. From her plants, she harvested camellia “apples”—the nearly spherical fruits, each containing no more than a few seeds. She planted and grew these seeds in her new greenhouse, evaluating their flowers, and later naming and registering those of greatest merit. Her introductions include: Camellia reticulata ‘Notre Dame’ (1977), ‘Dr. James W Frick’ (1981, C. reticulata ‘Buddha’ x C. reticulata ‘William Hertrich’), and ‘Heralding’ (1984, C. reticulata hybrid x C. japonica ‘Mark Alan Variegated’). She also introduced C. japonica ‘Irish Mist’ (1982) and ‘Charles F O’Malley’(1989), a lovely large flesh pink formal double named for her husband. She also joined the Peninsula Camellia Society, served as its president and supported its activities over several decades, all the while developing her extraordinary woodland camellia garden.
The O’Malley garden provides all of the elements necessary for camellias to flourish. The high canopy of trees, mostly valley oaks (Quercus lobata), creates open shade, protecting the plants from the hottest sun, as well from the heaviest wind and rain. Oak leaf drop provides an ideal, slightly acid mulch (pH 5.5-6.5). The gentle slope generates natural drainage in addition to good air circulation.
Anyone visiting is struck by the extraordinary health of the plants and by their beautiful pruning. Thinning the branches accentuates their natural form while opening them up so that flowers form in the center of the plants rather than just on the outer branch tips. The resulting improved air circulation clearly has benefited the plants by helping to keep them relatively free of disease.
One of the most extraordinary features of Marge’s garden is that it represents fifty years of acquisitions, thus presenting a chronology of hybridization. Each fall, the Nuccios delivered their newest plants for her to include in her ever-expanding collection. Her garden is one of the rare ones that have stayed true to a single genus. Many collectors lack such discipline, succumbing to temptation and straying into collecting plants from other genera. While Marge’s garden includes a few magnolias, rhododendrons, Japanese maples, and azaleas, it is decidedly a camellia garden. The exception might be the azaleas, which are planted in drifts to provide islands of color that echo the hues and tints of the camellias.
The Camellia Species
Camellias have been grown in California since 1852, thriving as landscape plants in our mild climates. Flowering eight to nine months of the year, they add color to the garden for an extended season. More importantly, even when they are out of bloom, their glossy green foliage makes them marvelous background plants.
More than 260 species of camellias have been identified to date, and over 32,000 cultivars are listed in the International Camellia Society Registry. Camellia japonica, C. sasanqua, C. reticulata, and C. sinensis (the tea we drink is made from the leaf buds and most tender leaves of this species) are the most commonly grown. Other interesting but less common species in Marge’s garden include C. chrysantha, with crayon yellow blooms; C. lapidea, with narrow, heavily serrated leaves; C. lutchuensis, with tiny, intensely fragrant white flowers covering its weeping branches; and C. cordifolia, with tiny white blossoms and soft, un-camellia-like leaves. Camellia foliage in the O’Malley garden can be just as interesting as the flowers. The leaves of C. sasanqua ‘Silverado’ are a frosty, light gray green, those of C. japonica ‘Kujaku Tsubaki’ are long and peach-like, and those of C. japonica ‘Unryu’ are arranged at opposing forty-five-degree angles, creating a distinct pattern.
The mainstay of most camellia gardens, Camellia japonica cultivars comprise only about half of the named plants in Marge’s collection. This surprisingly low percentage does not, in any way, imply a mundane group of plants, but instead a collection of unique varieties, among them: the glossy, deep red ‘Black Magic’; ‘Dahlohnega’, a small to medium-size, canary yellow, formal double; ‘Feathery Touch’, a white to blush pink semi-double with fimbriated petals; ‘Oshima’ (red, white, and pink), centuries old from Oshima Island in Japan; and award-winning ‘Miss Charleston Variegated’, a vivid red and white blend. There are also a number of Higo camellias from Japan in the collection. Higos are a category of C. japonica that originated in Kumamoto and are recognizable because of their single form, flat petals, and huge cluster of stamens forming a cup in the center of the flower. (Dr Franco Ghirardi’s book Higo Camellia: A Flower for the Third Millennium provides a comprehensive background on this fascinating group.) Some of the camellias, like ‘Golden Dome’ and ‘Irish Mist’, are no longer being grown, and the plants in Marge’s garden may well represent the only ones currently in cultivation. ‘Kujaku Tsubaki’, with its weeping form, is an old cultivar, commonly known as the peacock camellia, while ‘Corkscrew Egao’, with its naturally contorted branches, was just introduced in 2001. The lovely white ‘Masterpiece’, one of Marge’s favorites, forms a magnificent espalier on the wall of her breakfast room terrace. A twenty-foot-tall ‘Dolores Hope’ presides over the rear garden near the greenhouse that contains camellia seedlings, grafts, and bonsai in various stages of maturity.
Selections of Camellia sasanqua, fragrant camellias that bloom in the fall and early winter, are in abundance. Marge has used them in some innovative ways in her garden. A low hedge of the white C. ‘Silver Dollar’ greets us as we emerge from our car, and a hedge of the red-flowered ‘Yuletide’ curves to edge the rear terrace. Regrettably, the old ‘Yuletide’ jump in the riding ring no longer exists. In another interesting use, ‘Pink Showers’ fills a formal boxwood bed near the front of the house.
Judging from the number of Camellia reticulata cultivars in the garden, this is clearly Marge’s favorite species. The largest, now tree-sized, include ‘Mandalay Queen’, with its vibrant pink, six-inch or larger blooms, marking the entrance to the rear garden. Across the path is a bright pink ‘Kohinor’, along with the vivid, variegated, pink-and-white ‘Cornelian’, which came to the Bay Area from Kunming, China, in 1948. Numerous plants of Marge’s introduction, ‘Notre Dame’, are set near the house where she could easily enjoy them.
The variety of flower forms and sizes in this collection is exceptional. Flowers range in size from the tiny one-inch blooms of Camellia transnokoensis to huge reticulata selections such as ‘Shanghai Lady’, with light orchid pink, semi-double flowers measuring over six inches in diameter. Some of the spring-blooming camellias are fragrant, such as the non-reticulata hybrid ‘Sweet Emily Kate’. Marge’s collection includes ‘Elegans Champagne’, a large, creamy white, anemone-form flower with a row of outer petals that lie flat around a mass of convex petaloids and stamens. ‘Miss Tulare’, a full peony-form reticulata hybrid, presents its flowers as a solid ball of vibrant red petals intermixed with yellow stamens. Formal doubles include ‘Valentine Day’, a beautiful, medium pink reticulata with a bud center, and ‘Nuccio’s Gem’, a clear white with rows of layered petals but with no stamens visible.
At the end of a delightful afternoon, walking back under ‘Mandalay Queen’ as the fading rays of the sun illuminate its enormous blossoms, I cannot help but reflect on how rare it is to see a collection like this, built year by year, and representing half a century of thoughtful effort, vision, and commitment. Marge’s sincere love and respect of this magnificent plant and flower have enabled her to create a garden that provides unique views of camellias, and offers inspiration for novices and experts alike.
Marjorie O’Malley passed away in January 2004, just days after losing her beloved dog Karl. Thanks to the generosity of the new owner, her garden was open for one last time in March 2004 for the San Francisco Peninsula Camellia Society’s garden tour. The proceeds of that tour are being used to create a new Camellia Species Garden for the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. The new garden will include many of the camellias from the O’Malley garden.
In celebration of this new garden, the San Francisco Peninsula Camellia Society will hold its Camellia Show in the County Fair Building at the San Francisco Botanical Garden on Saturday and Sunday, February 19 and 20, 2005. Held in San Francisco for the first time, it will be open to the public at no charge. There will be exhibits, floral displays, educational programs, plants for sale, and a camellia auction. For further information, visit www.camelliaspcs.org or call 650/728-3775.