Camellia show features grower’s masterpieces

Sawada’s Dream
Sawada’s Dream

The 64th annual Mississippi Gulf Coast Camellia Show will pay tribute to a man known as Mr. Camellia, a native of Japan whose resourcefulness — and his wife’s dowry — made him one of the premier growers of camellias in the U.S.

The show, presented by the Mississippi Gulf Coast Camellia Society, will be open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Lyman Community Center, 13742 U.S. 49, in Gulfport. A variety of camellias will be on sale, including several developed by Mr. Camellia, Kosaku Sawada.

Sawada, born in 1882, came to the U.S. after the St. Louis World Fair in 1904 as one of four young Japanese men who were recruited to start a rice farm in Texas. But the owner was killed in an accident and the farm failed, and Sawada was left in a strange land without a job.

With a degree in agriculture from Osaka University and connections to nurseries in Japan, he moved to Grand Bay, Alabama, to start a satsuma nursery. A severe freeze put an end to that venture, too. So Sawada bought 80 acres near Mobile, where he focused on ornamental shrubbery. This became Overlook Nursery.

Sawada used established camellias from the Mobile area to gather propagated cuttings. As the demand for camellias grew, he branched out farther around the country. Then, when his Japanese bride, Nobu Yoshioka, arrived in the U.S. in 1916, she brought with her a suitcase full of camellia seeds from Japan — her dowry toward their arranged marriage. Her brother shipped another 2,000 seeds to Overlook in 1925.

Sawada’s nursery and its camellias flourished. In 1929, he declared some of the blooms from the 1925 planting “outstanding” varieties. Two of his early introductions were ordered and shipped to Mississippi writer Eudora Welty, who lived in Jackson. Both Victory White (1938) and White Empress (1939) form part of the camellia border on the side of her home there. Altogether, Welty and her mother planted more than 40 camellias in their garden.

Sawada’s nursery flourished into the 1940s. With the U.S. entry into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were rounded up and placed in internment camps. Those in the South were not included, but fear led some local governments to take over businesses run by Japanese-Americans, including two nurseries in the Mobile area. Kiyano’s Nursery was seized and sold at auction, and Overlook was to be confiscated next. However, local nurserymen banded together and met with local authorities, advocating for Overlook and Sawada. The local government decided to let the Sawadas keep Overlook Nursery.

In 1958, after 10 years of development, Sawada’s Dream was registered. This new camellia was a formal double with white shading to a delicate pink on the outer third of the petals. Acclaim came quickly, with Sawada’s Dream placing in shows across the country and continuing to maintain its popularity today. It was the development of this camellia along with his vast contributions to camellia culture that earned him the Mr. Camellia nickname.

Sawada’s Dream “was unique because it was multicolored,” said Al LeFebvre, a Gulfport camellia grower and member of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Camellia Society for 46 years. “It took the camellia world by storm.”

In 1959, he got a specimen when mail order cuttings were going for $15 apiece. As if that investment wasn’t enough, he drove to Overlook Nursery and bought a plant for $25, which at the time was a “tremendous price.”

Several of Sawada’s registered camellias will be at the show. Sawada camellias that will be on sale include Camellia japonica Sawada’s Dream, Victory White and Queen Bessie as well as Camellia sasanqua Maiden’s Blush, Tiny Princess and Gulf Glory.

More Sawada camellias available are Sawada’s Mahogany, a maroon-colored peony-type camellia discovered in Sawada’s personal garden, and Steven Sawada, a red single camellia named for Sawada’s grandson.

The WinterGarden at the Mobile Botanical Gardens is dedicated to Sawada, who died in 1968.