In his forest of potted camellias, Tom Nuccio searched for just the right bloom.
This was no ordinary flower, but something so new it didn’t have a name. When at last he saw it amid thousands of camellias, the hybridizer halted in his tracks and gently held the red bloom up for inspection.
“I call it ‘Stop!’ because that’s what it makes me do,” he said proudly of the red camellia with unusual white center frills.
That’s high praise at Nuccio’s Nurseries, the renowned incubator of new camellias and azaleas. These old-fashioned shrubs are enjoying a surge in popularity in part due to new varieties introduced by the Nuccio family.
Dozens of unusual camellia plants from Nuccio’s will be offered for sale during this weekend’s 93rd annual Sacramento Camellia Show at Memorial Auditorium. Undoubtedly, the nursery’s camellias will be represented on the trophy tables, too; Nuccio’s has introduced more than 200 varieties.
Through plant breeding and propagation, the Nuccios keep expanding what a camellia can be. With frilly petals and yellow stamens, new varieties may look more like peonies or anemones than familiar camellia forms. Unlike faintly scented older varieties, some newcomers offer strong perfume.
“The biggest ‘new’ added feature to camellias is fragrance,” said Jim Nuccio, Tom’s brother. “High Fragrance is our best-selling pink camellia. It does have a nice scent, very musky, especially on a warm day.”
Some introductions feature dramatic variegation in both their flowers and foliage. Others take their coloring in a different direction. Looking more hibiscus than camellia, tuliplike blooms boast striking white borders.
Rather than the usual range of pinks and reds, some breakthrough Nuccio camellias have yellow blooms, an almost shocking hue for this shrub. Blue tones create darker shades of red. In the works are orange Camellia azalea crosses that re-bloom in summer.
Tom and Jim Nuccio and cousin Julius Nuccio operate their family’s large wholesale and retail nursery, considered the nation’s premier source of camellias.
“We were up to 650 camellia varieties in the catalog, but we’ve trimmed it down to about 500,” Jim said. “It’s always tempting to add and never subtract.”
“We still have all those varieties, but just not enough to sell,” Tom added. “We always try to keep at least two of everything and not sell the last one. There have been times when I’ve chased a customer into the parking lot (saying), ‘You’ve got to choose something else. Don’t take that one, please!’ ”
Nuccio’s is a treasure trove of living rarities; that includes the Nuccios.
“We’re the last ones,” Julius said. “Our kids aren’t interested in doing this.”
Not that the cousins plan to stop developing and growing camellias any time soon. It’s their family legacy.
According to Nuccio lore, Grandma Kate fell in love with camellias, a popular corsage flower in the 1930s. Her sons, Joseph and Julius Nuccio, started their nursery business in 1935 in the backyard of the family’s home in Alhambra. After World War II, they moved their operation to a steep parcel purchased in 1946 by their Italian immigrant father, Giulio, who wanted his backyard back.
At the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, million-dollar homes now dot the road leading to the family’s flower farm that stretches across more than 5 acres of hillside above Altadena.
“It’s a good business to make a living, if you don’t mind working seven days a week,” the younger Julius said. “Our parents were just lucky the three of us liked it. Our kids would rather do something else.”
“It’s like farming,” Jim added.
“But we haven’t figured out a way to eat camellias,” quipped Julius.
“We may be the last generation doing this,” Tom said. “But if you like doing this, every day is too short.”
Via its catalog and retail nursery, Nuccio’s sells about half a million camellias a year.
“Our best-sellers are the ones you can find at Home Depot,” Jim said. “That’s because landscapers want a lot of certain things, like 50 Setsugekka (a popular white camellia). But variety keeps it interesting. That’s what attracts people. They know we have something different.”
Tom in particular loves nurturing new varieties. Ferris Wheel, a giant variegated showstopper, was introduced last year.
“That was just a chance seedling and it has these beautiful stripes,” he said. “Every once in a while, you get a winner.”
Most of his hybrids come from open pollination.
“We let the bees do their thing,” Tom said. “We know the mother (plants), but not the dad.”
Large and shiny like loquat seeds, camellia seeds are harvested and planted in fall, but don’t sprout for months.
“Camellias are very easy to grow from seed, but the seed has a short shelf life,” Tom explained. “You’ve got to pick them and plant them right away, but they won’t come up until spring.”
Hybridizing camellias requires patience. It takes five years for most seedlings to bloom, then another five years to propagate enough plants to offer that variety for sale, Tom said.
Native to Asia, camellia species are still being discovered in the wild, he noted. That adds more potential genetic material for hybridizers. Those wild camellias get credit for adding yellow and fragrance to modern hybrids.
“We’re getting a lot of new yellows; that’s exciting,” Tom said. “We’re getting really strong blue tones now, too.”
Other crosses further stretch the range of camellias. For example, Camellia azalea, an endangered wild species, blooms from May until February. When crossed with other species, its hybrids are summer-flowering camellias with smooth-edged leaves and orange-red hues.
Although new varieties can be enticing, older Nuccio favorites such as the formal white Nuccio’s Gem or the pink-edged Nuccio’s Pearl also continue to be popular. They’re all part of a camellia renaissance.
“It’s a relatively easy care plant with a gorgeous flower that blooms in winter,” Tom said. “What’s not to like?”
93rd annual Sacramento Camellia Show
When: 3-6 p.m. Saturday, March 4; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, March 5
Where: Memorial Auditorium, 1515 J St., Sacramento
Highlights: Enter cut camellia blooms or camellia photos 7-10 a.m. Saturday, March 4. See website for rules.