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Festival in Fort Valley celebrates camellias

Yuko Medina, left, and Keiko Fengler enjoy the winter flowering specimens at the Massee Lane Gardens, the home of the American Camellia Society.
Yuko Medina, left, and Keiko Fengler enjoy the winter flowering specimens at the Massee Lane Gardens, the home of the American Camellia Society. bcabell@macon.com

Looking for something to do during the crisp, month of February? The Festival of Camellias at Massee Lane Gardens celebrates the peak of the camellia blooms during the entire month of February.

More than a 1,000 varieties of camellias bloom from October-April at the botanical gardens, located at 100 Massee Lane in Fort Valley. Of the 150 acres that are part of the gardens, there are over 1,000 camellias on 9 acres primarily devoted to growing camellias, according to Camille Bielby, multimedia specialist for the American Camellia Society.

“The reason why camellias are special and prized … they bloom in the winter when everything is dormant ... and in the summer, while all the plants are building buds for winter, they are thick, lush landscape greenery,” said Bielby. “They are beautiful even when they are not in bloom.”

During the month-long festival, the gardens will be open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1-4:30 p.m. Sunday. The festival will kick-off with free admission Saturday. Daily admission is regularly $5 for adults and $4 for seniors age 55 and older; kids under age 12 are admitted free. In addition, during the month of February, complimentary hot tea will be offered in celebration of the camellia bloom.

“People are not aware that the tea plant is a camellia,” explains Bielby. “Tea is the most widely grown camellia in the world; most people don’t realize when they drink tea, they are a drinking camellia (and) there are hundreds of tea varieties. All tea is from the species camellia sinensi. The flavors come from how they process it and how early they pick the leaves.”

Professionally guided tours for groups of 10 or more can be arranged at the cost of $5 per person, explained Bielby. Horticulturalists and knowledgeable volunteers give tours through the gardens and” talk about the history of the gardens and the individual plants and why they are special.” Reservations must be made in advance, and it is on a first-come, first-serve basis. Generally, the tours need to be scheduled up to three days in advance, but reservations should be made as early as possible for the best time slot. These tours may also be upgraded to the Deluxe Box Lunch Tour, for $15 per person for groups of 10 or more, and includes lunch from William L. Brown Farm Market. These reservations must be made at least a week in advance.

“Some of the camellias here are the last ones on the planet,” Bielby said. “There are a lot of species that we have one of the only plants of that particular variety.”

To engage children and help them explore the gardens, kids can enjoy a free, nature scavenger hunt, Bielby said. The children are given egg cartons with lists of items taped on them of things they can find in the garden. Some of the items might include leaves, seeds and petals.

William Khoury, operations manager at Massee Lane, who is a horticulturalist, said that a lot of people simply come to the gardens to get information.

“We get both people who come to see the blooms and avid gardeners who are very interested in the camellias themselves and how to grow them,” he said, adding that there are always experts on hand to answer questions.

According to Khoury, the most popular garden varieties in the area are Pink Perfection and Professor Sargent, in addition to Frank Houser, which is more of a show variety that was cultivated in Macon and is now popular worldwide.

The festival finale will be the Middle Georgia Camellia Society and Flint Energies Camellia Show which will be held Feb. 24-25 at Massee Lane Gardens, Bielby said.

“Last year there were 1,320 blooms entered by 39 exhibitors from southeast Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama,” she said. “Anybody can enter; we have a group here to help novices enter their blooms. All you have to do is pick it out of your yard and show up.”

Experts will be on hand to help novice exhibitors prepare blooms for entry and help identify them, Bielby said. There will be 40 award categories, with a Best Bloom and runner-up in each category. In addition, there will also be a Court of Honor. There is no cost to enter blooms. Bloom entry will start at 7:30 a.m. Saturday and will close at 10:30 a.m. for judging. Once the judging is over, it will be free and open to the public from 1-4:30 p.m. Saturday and from 1-4 p.m. Sunday

Live camellias will also be available for sale. Prices start at $28 for 3-gallon pots that are well established and ready to plant. Reservations for garden tours and luncheons can be made by calling 877-422- 6355.

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