If the camellia is indeed a man’s flower, then Max McKinney is a man’s man.
McKinney became fascinated with camellias 40 years ago when he was a college mathematics professor living in Americus, Ga.
“I’ve been told a camellia is a man’s flower and the day lily is a woman’s flower,” McKinney said. “… I started in Americus. I built a little greenhouse and started grafting, and it was just a delight to graft and see the graft grow and develop into a bush and bloom.”
When he retired and moved to Dothan with his wife, he kept up his camellia hobby. For years, his camellias filled his Dothan yard and still number 50 to 75 bushes. He has grafted, grown, potted and planted more than his share of camellias. But after his wife died a few years ago, he began looking to expand his love of camellias. Four years ago, he purchased five acres covered in pine trees on Omussee Road in Webb and began planting.
“I just went wild; I became a fanatic,” McKinney said. “It’s just an addiction with me. I can come out here at 7:30 in the morning and I can work until four or five o’clock and not even notice.”
In the last three years, McKinney has planted more 1,000 camellia bushes under the filtered sunlight between the rows of tall pine trees. There’s a couple hundred more in pots that he still plans to plant, including those he’s developing through grafting. In all, he has about 500 to 600 different camellia varieties.
He calls his garden ─ marked by brick columns and an iron arch ─ Amazing Grace Gardens and refers to the blooming shrubs as his grandchildren.
“This is my therapy garden,” said McKinney, now in his late 70s.
McKinney dug each hole by hand with a hole digger, just as he has since he got his first camellia, an April Lyn Poe. His favorite camellia, as he likes to say, is always the last one he saw.
McKinney still judges camellia shows, but he has never registered a camellia with the American Camellia Society, located in Georgia. He hopes to register some next year. He grafts about 100 to 150 camellias each year.
Grafting, for those who don’t know, is a horticultural technique used to combine the tissues of two plants ─ one is considered the understock; the other a scion. The understock plant is usually chosen for its roots, while the scion is selected for the quality of its stems, leaves, flowers or fruits.
The season for local camellias won’t last much longer. The winter bloomers usually come out around October with later-blooming varieties hanging on until April, ushering in spring bloomers like dogwoods and azaleas.
A Southern favorite, camellias are not hard to care for, although freezing temperatures this winter have been a bit hard on buds that were partially opened, leaving lighter-colored blooms with a brown tint and burnt edges as they fully opened. Water and fertilizer at the right time are about all the special care camellias really need. Once a camellia’s blooming season is complete, simply prune to keep it in shape.
When McKinney bought the five acres, he thinned out some of the pine trees, but left plenty to provide the dappled sunlight camellias love. The pine trees, he said, provide the best canopy for camellias because pine roots won’t rob the camellias of water the way oak tree roots will.
“From my point of view, plants do not do well in total shade and they do not do well under, for example, oak trees because they like a lot of water,” McKinney said. “That’s what makes the camellia – water, water, water, water. They need to be watered at least once a week if it’s dry. But the weather we’ve been having here lately has been excellent for them.”
Walking around his camellias, McKinney points out different varieties of camellias, occasionally letting loose an excited giggle. He showed off an Emperor of Russia, the Tamas (Tama Beauty, Tama Americana, Tama Glitter, Tama Bambino), Marguerette Davis Picote, Desert Moon, Sweet Emily, Steve Blount and Nuccio’s Gem. There are big fat camellias; there are small and miniature camellias; there are camellias that don’t even look like camellias. There’s the Fragrant Joy and the blood red Night Rider.
“I’m like a two-headed cat in a fish market,” McKinney said, giggling with excitement.
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