These camellias receive the finest care - accidentally

When our garden club asked for volunteers to help at the local camellia show, my husband and I thought it would be fun. When we arrived, the tables were already set up, and half of them were covered with bright pink blossoms.

"What would you like us to do?" we asked. We were told we would be "clerks," sometimes called "runners." We would follow around three judges while they scrutinized the size, color, shape, and freshness of each blossom, giving each of those deemed worthy a check mark for first, second, or third place. We in turn would put a blue, red, or yellow sticker on those entry cards. Judges would also put a bright green sticker on the very best of the category, and that one would be "run" by a clerk to the head table for final judging.

We watched as contestants carefully took camellia blossoms from plastic containers filled with wet cotton, and placed them gently into tiny cups of water.

We didn't know there were so many varieties of camellias; some only the size of a button, known as boutonnieres, and others bigger than a man's hand. Colors varied from hot pink to white, dark maroon to speckled - with names like Scensation, Cloisonne, Ballet Dancer, Pink Perfection, Debutante, Ace of Hearts, and Shiro Chan.

When we moved into our new home about four years ago, we bought camellia plants because of their waxy green leaves and carefree maintenance. At the same time, we planted azaleas and Australian tree ferns. Then we sat back and waited for everything to grow. And grow it did! The ferns soon hid the camellias and azaleas, which were all but forgotten.

But at the camellia show we learned that in our ignorance we had beentaking the proper care of our plants. Camellias do not need a lot of plant food. That was fine - once-a-year feeding was all I gave them. They were planted in the perfect spot, with partial shade from the ferns and a little water every day from the sprinkler system.

Carefully cutting the beautiful flowers and the leaves just beneath them took care of the pruning part.

After the camellia show, my husband and I wondered if any of our plants were in bloom. When we got home, we pulled aside the huge green fronds of the Australian tree ferns and found one bloom.

I picked it and held it in the palm of my hand. It was an elegant silvery-pink, with ruffled petals. Truly exquisite. "I think we have a winner," I said. My husband nodded, pulled out a green sticker, and told me to run it to the head table for judging.

Maybe next year. In the meantime, we can enjoy the prize we have right in our own garden.

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