Home & Garden

Camellia show turns 90 with blooms galore

Julie Vierra got into camellias like many other local gardeners: by coincidence. They were growing in her backyard.

They also gave her an excuse.

“I joined the camellia club in the early 1980s,” Vierra said. “It wasn’t just about the flowers; I had three little girls, and I wanted to get out of the house.”

Flower lovers won’t need an excuse this weekend to celebrate Sacramento’s favorite bloom. It’s show time in Camellia City.

This weekend, Vierra and other members of the Camellia Society of Sacramento will host the 90th annual Sacramento Camellia Show at Memorial Auditorium. More than 3,000 people are expected to attend.

They’ll find a hall filled with thousands of blooms in a salute to Sacramento’s gardening tenacity as well as its beloved flower.

“Sacramento is the largest camellia show and the oldest camellia show in the nation,” said co-chairman Don Lesmeister. “We should have 3,500 to 4,000 entries.”

In fact, the local exhibition is one of the oldest horticultural events of any kind in California.

Don and Joan Lesmeister celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this week. They’ve been working on camellia shows almost as long.

“When we got married, I didn’t know what a flower was,” Don joked.

Added Joan, “It’s been a lot of years, a lot of fun, a lot of flowers.”

The couple got started with camellias by accident in the early 1970s. Some shrubs were growing in their garden. Don had no idea what to do with them. They had these funny knoblike growths on the stems. He thought they might be diseased.

Don pulled out the shrubs and piled them up on his lawn. A neighbor asked if he could have the castoff plants.

That winter, Don noticed those same plants blooming on his neighbor’s porch. That’s when he realized that those funny-looking “knobs” were actually flower buds and it takes a camellia bud months to develop before its winter bloom.

After that lesson, Lesmeister became a camellia student, scouring academic texts as well as garden books. He bought new camellia plants and strove to make them happy.

“We didn’t even know what happened,” Don said with a chuckle. “We got started in 1975. By 1976, we won best in show. It was like a lure to a fish. We go to all the shows now, from Napa to Los Angeles. But we have better blooms up here in Sacramento.”

For many years now, Don Lesmeister has been co-chairman of the camellia show. The Lesmeisters grow about 200 camellias, almost all in containers, at their Carmichael home. Their camellias have earned more than 1,000 trophies.

But you don’t need a lot of flowers to take home prizes, he noted. Just one perfect bloom will do.

“We try to show people you don’t have to be a big grower to do well in the show,” Lesmeister said. “Julie, for example, has limited space and limited plants and still does very well in the show.”

What Vierra didn’t have was a lot of shade in her backyard. She credits her husband, Ernie Vierra, with constructing a lattice shade structure that gives the camellias just the right amount of filtered sunlight.

“I enjoy gardening; it’s my stress reliever,” Julie said. “I’d rather garden than clean the house.”

Camellias brighten up dull winter days, she noted. That’s part of their popularity; they bloom when little else flowers.

Vierra grows several old-time varieties – such as “Pink Perfection” and “Margaret Davis.” Others look more exotic than familiar. “Night Rider,” a hybrid, has burgundy-black blooms of the deepest wine red. “Carter Sunburst” looks splattered with magenta tears. “High Fragrance” is one of few camellias with a strong scent.

Many of the camellias that dot Sacramento gardens were planted decades ago, Vierra noted. The most common varieties include “Debutante,” “Elegance” and “Mathotiana.” The show is an opportunity to not only learn about camellias but the names of these eye-catching flowers.

“We’re noticing more young people coming to the show,” Joan Lesmeister said. “They’ve moved into older neighborhoods. They’ve got a camellia – or two or three – and want to know what it is and how to care for it.”

This 90th edition should be a winner, Don Lesmeister noted, but “this has been a weird winter.”

“The camellias became confused; the flowers didn’t know if they should open or close. But they’re really picking up at the right time,” he added. “The show will be in good shape.”