For the first time in more than 30 years, camellias will bloom in full exhibition and competition glory in Augusta. The historic Sand Hills Garden Club, in cooperation with First Baptist Church, the Suburban Garden Club, and the Aiken Camellia Society, is reviving The Augusta Camellia Show this February, with a vibrant schedule of showings, awards, and speakers. The Garden City has long-awaited the return of this classic showcase, a high horticultural event sanctioned by the American Camellia Society and marked on every green thumb’s calendar. In its presentation of the 2018 Augusta Camellia Show, the Sand Hills Garden Club promises to remain true to its tradition of providing an arena for competitive blooms as well as a venue for the public to view and learn more about them.

Ancient Camellia History

Long before Augusta beheld the beauty of camellia blooms, these flowers were an essential element of Japan’s cultural and religious life more than 500 years ago. The native camellias of Japan, also known as “tsubaki” and “the tree with shining leaves,” were deemed sacred, holy plants by Shintoism, as followers believe the camellia to be a spiritual home to the gods during their terrestrial visits. Due to their religious value, these flowers became features in Japanese temple gardens, graveyards, and other areas of religious significance. Gradually, the prominence of camellias in Japanese shrines diminished as other types of cut flowers became popular. Although camellias seemed to be losing their luster in Japan, the flower’s appeal grew in Europe and eventually North America. In the U.S., shortly after the American Revolution, camellias made their first appearance in a show in 1828.

Founding of the Sand Hills Garden Club

The flower would ultimately gain popularity in Augusta thanks to one Mrs. Joseph McKnight Speer, a Philadelphia native, member of the Garden Club of America (GCA), and founder of what would become the Sand Hills Garden Club. In 1927, while this inspired GCA member was a hostess to several Augusta ladies for an afternoon of tea, she proposed the idea of establishing a garden club: the Augusta Garden Club (renamed the Sand Hills Garden Club in 1929 and admitted to the GCA). Shortly after its inception, the Sand Hills Garden Club began its first community service project of restoring the historic Old Medical College building. This inspired the first house and garden tour in Georgia in March 1932, which raised funds for the building’s restoration. Several garden club members brought camellias to a meeting at the home of Mrs. Percy Rurum. Everyone marveled the flower’s beauty. Soon after, Sand Hills presented the world’s first all-camellia show at the home of club member Mrs. Alonzo P. Boardman. A rollicking success, the next all-camellia showcase was held at the Old Medical College building the following year and featured expert authorities as judges.

The gracious, dedicated, and flower-loving club members of Augusta and Aiken were later honored by having camellias named after them. The varieties were cultivated by Norwood Hastie, of Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation, and include the Elizabeth F. Boardman, a billowing, pure white variation; the Anita M. Wallace, a regal rose pink blossom; and  the Mrs. Sheffield Phelps, an augmented anemoniform flower. This only marked the beginning of the impact and success of Sand Hills.

The Sand Hills Club Blossoms

The organization inspired many other local garden formations and even went on to organize the Augusta Council of Garden Clubs in 1948. Sand Hills contributed to the public Pendleton King Park and worked in cooperation with the Augusta Garden Council to create the “touch and smell” garden for the blind and visually impaired. The club also sponsored a tree symposium entitled “Use and Abuse of Street Trees,” which led to Augusta’s first tree ordinance.   

Beginning in 1999, Sand Hills started a 10-year coordination plan with the Phinizy Swamp Nature Park to help provide for outdoor classrooms, information kiosks, a boardwalk, interpretive trails, and an observation deck in the park. In addition to this partnership, Sand Hills teamed up with Trees for Augusta Inc. in 2010 with goals of maintaining and furthering the natural aesthetics of the Garden City.  Through this collaboration, the club has provided financial support, leadership, fundraising and committee responsibilities, demonstrating its advocacy of cultivating trees in urban areas.

From camellias to trees, the Sand Hills Garden Club has evolved from hosting the casual afternoon tea to playing a major role in the gardening community of Augusta. The club has never tired in its mission to educate those interested in gardening, encourage conservation of the environment, preserve wildlife, and improve the landscape for the overall betterment and beautification  of the Garden City.


The Augusta Camellia Show

February 3rd

Featuring awards
in more than 16 official
classes and exhibits.
Camellia experts will
be on hand to answer
your questions.

Free admission.
1-6 p.m.
First Baptist Church.

Article appears in the February/March 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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