Six on Saturday: Meet Mr. Camellia

Last month in my blog post about camellias, I mentioned that the Gulf Coast region has played an important part in the development of many varieties of this beautiful shrub. One of the major contributors was Kosaku Sawada, often referred to as K. Sawada. (1882 – 1968)

He emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s, with a degree in agriculture from Osaka University, eventually buying 80 acres outside of Mobile, Alabama. He developed his land into a successful commercial nursery focusing on ornamental shrubbery, particularly hybridizing camellias.

Family and friends from home sent Japanese camellia seeds that he used to create new cultivars. His bride brought a dowry from Japan in 1916 – a suitcase full of camellia seeds. He also used cuttings from old camellias planted in the home gardens of the Mobile area from the nineteenth century. By the 1950s he had grown around one thousand varieties. Estimates vary, but experts suppose there are a total of around three thousand varieties of camellias in existence, so his contribution is significant. He also experimented with many other kinds of shrubs and also raised vegetables and poultry.

He published many articles in the American Camellia Society’s yearbooks and in other magazines. A highly sought after speaker & lecturer, he was known as Mr. Camellia in organizations all around the United States. He also tried his hand at painting watercolor florals.

“This normally quiet man could talk for hours about his camellias. He often said, “I wonder why everybody invites me to talk to their Club? Maybe, they want to hear my broken English and accent.” Hardly. People wanted to hear about camellias, from one who lived, breathed and loved camellias for so long—and had given them so many camellias to love.” (Bill Ray, Petals Along the Trail: Kosaku Sawada, American, who seemed to draw much from Mr. George Sawada’s article.)

Mr. Sawada was proud to be an American and raised his family of four children to be proud Americans. The three boys were named after founding fathers: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. Those were the most American names he could think of.  They didn’t speak Japanese in the home. He sent his children to Sunday school, and reinforced strong American values.

The children went on to make important contributions to their community. Tom continued maintaining the family business, Overlook Nurseries, until his death in 2004. George used his degree in horticulture from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (which became Auburn University) to beautify the city of Mobile through the Department of Parks and Recreation. After the death of his wife and his retirement, he became a missionary in Costa Rica, where he contributed to aquaculture development to help feed the populations in the country. Ben became a minister in the United Methodist Church. Daughter Lurie was a social worker who was director of the Florence Crittenden home in Mobile. Tom and George served in the military. All four of that generation have now passed away.

I only met Ben and Lurie, but I knew George since we were members of the same church. I was even blessed to go on a mission trip to Costa Rica and visited with him, while he was loving his new missionary life at the Methodist Center in Alejuela, CR. 

I never knew anything about his father at the time. The only hint I ever had that Mr. K. Sawada was famous was when George told me his only trip to New York City was brief. He said, “I got off the plane and went immediately to Ellis Island to see the plaque with my father’s name on it. Then I got on another airplane and came right back home.”

A couple of days after Kosaku Sawada’s death, the New York Times published an article about him honoring his life and contributions.

Both Mobile and Baldwin counties in south Alabama have many commercial plant nurseries and farms, but they are being swallowed up by residential properties. Overlook Nursery doesn’t exist anymore, and few people are around who knew Mr. Sawada.

The one hundred acre Mobile Botanical Gardens pays tribute to Mr. K. Sawada by naming its Winter Garden section for him. Some of the many Sawada camellias are planted in these six acres, particularly those named for local friends and family members. Of course, it also showcases beautiful camellias and other selections from many growers along the entire Gulf Coast region.

If you are interested in more information about Mr. Sawada and his camellias, you can check out these articles or just google him. I used these pieces for reference in what I wrote here.

Camellia show features grower’s masterpieces. November 14, 2016, Biloxi Sun Herald.  https://www.sunherald.com/news/local/article114691633.html

Petals Along the Trail: Kosaku Sawada, American. By Bill Ray.  https://www.mobilebotanicalgardens.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Sawada-Ray.pdf

Article about his father published in American Camellia Yearbook, 1969 by George Sawada https://camelliassww.blob.core.windows.net/assets/Yearbook-1969-Kosaku%20Sawada.pdf

Shalom, Dottie

Remember, The Propagator, ( @cavershamjj on Twitter) started Six on Saturday. It’s a fun challenge to participate (almost) every week. Check out his blog: The Propagator – My plant obsession (wordpress.com)

9 thoughts on “Six on Saturday: Meet Mr. Camellia

  1. Pingback: SIX ON SATURDAY: Some New Additions | Dottie Lovelady Rogers

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