Home & Garden

World's largest, oldest camellia show returns to Memorial Auditorium – at least once more

Where do you put 3,500 camellias? How about the thousands of people who come to see them?

For decades, that answer has been simple: Memorial Auditorium. This weekend, the venerable Sacramento venue will host the 94th annual Sacramento Camellia Show, the world's oldest and largest event of its kind.

On the National Register of Historic Places, Memorial Auditorium has served as a wonderful and gracious home to the camellia show, Sacramento's celebration of its official flower, say show organizers. But upcoming renovations to the 90-year-old auditorium are expected to uproot the event for at least one year, maybe more.

Of immediate concern, show organizers worry that there will be enough camellias this weekend to fill Memorial's exhibition space.

"Please, everybody, bring camellias!" said co-chairman Julie Vierra. "After that hail on Monday, we'll need every camellia we can get."

Vierra's own West Sacramento garden was hit hard by Monday's freak hailstorm.

"It hailed for 45 minutes," she said. "Unbelievable! (Afterward), I filled two 5-gallon buckets with flowers (that had been destroyed)."

Hosted by the Camellia Society of Sacramento, the show is open to all exhibitors, even if they've never entered a flower show. Entries are accepted from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The show opens to the public at 3 p.m.

"We'll help people identify their camellias and fill out their entry cards," said co-chairman Don Lesmeister, who has won more than 1,000 trophies at camellia shows.

Lesmeister loves Memorial as a showcase for camellias.

"We've been off and on at Memorial over our almost century (of shows)," he said. "This is our 94th year and at least 50 have been in Memorial."

The last time the show moved out of Memorial, the camellias relocated into the Sacramento Convention Center, he noted. Back then, the show featured more than 10,000 blooms. That also was when the show was part of the city's Camellia Festival, which ended in 1993, and the convention center's exhibition halls hosted folk dancing and other festival events.

While planning this year's show, society members have been scouting locations for next year. Memorial is expected to shut down this spring for $16 million in renovations.

Most Sacramento venues are either too small, too expensive or already booked, Vierra said. Home to most Sacramento flower shows, Shepard Garden and Arts Center has only 2,000 square feet indoors – a fraction of Memorial's floor space. The Scottish Rite Temple, home of the Sacramento Orchid Show, is comparatively pricey. Several large school auditoriums in the area are rented out for Sunday church services. Another possible venue, the Elks Lodge on Riverside Boulevard, hosts Sunday brunch.

"Every spot, we either couldn't have a Saturday-Sunday show or would have to charge admission (to cover costs)," she said.

The society's show budget is $5,000, which mostly goes towards renting the facility, she added. The 60-member club does fundraising through the sale of plants and commemorative buttons to cover the show's costs.

"We really pride ourselves that it's a free show," Lesmeister said. "This is something we do for the community.

"We were thinking about the old Sleep Train Arena," he continued. "But we don't want to bankrupt the society (on rent). We could maybe do it one or two years, but we really want to make 100 – and we're only on 94. But if we don't figure out something soon, we may be out of luck."

Scheduled for a two-year, $125 million renovation starting in 2019, the convention center has more than enough room for the camellia show, maybe too much. With an exhibit hall that can be divided into five parts, it boasts more than 134,000 square feet of exhibit space. Its ballroom offers another 25,000 square feet. But with remodeling on tap, it may not be available either.

Memorial Auditorium's main floor offers nearly 9,000 square feet. The camellia show uses all of that room plus the 3,700 square feet on stage.

Auditorium manager Sid Heberger has been particularly helpful and accommodating, Lesmeister said.

"She is a champion," he said. "She's a very professional person who stays on top of everything. She's helped us so much."

A longtime camellia exhibitor, Lesmeister also worries about this year's entries. Warm winter weather prompted many camellia bushes to bloom out early -- a month ahead of schedule or more. As show time neared, conditions turned wet and cold.

"This year has been problematic," he said. "Between the rain and freeze, I have the least amount of flowers in my garden than I've had in years. Camellias can take a little rain, but not blustery wind."

Or hail, Vierra added.

"That warm weather really sped things up," she said. "The flowers just popped. Then, we hit that freeze and camellias came to a screeching halt."

Even in bad weather years, the camellia show has turned out beautifully, noted Lesmeister. That's why so many people keep coming back.

"Raising camellias is like being a farmer," he added. "It's always something."

94th annual Sacramento Camellia Show

Where: Memorial Auditorium, 1515 J St., Sacramento

When: 3-6 p.m. Saturday, March 3; 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sunday, March 4

Admission: Free

Details: www.camelliasocietyofsacramento.org

Enter camellias: Anyone can enter a camellia, as long as it's home grown. Bring a cut flower with at least 2 inches of stem; volunteers will help with variety identification if needed. Entries will be accepted 7 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday; first-time flower exhibitors should arrive early.