Joanne Tsukamoto only grows two camellia bushes in her garden, but she’s a star at the annual Sacramento Camellia Show – and not because of her flowers. Next weekend, she’ll sign hundreds of autographs at the Sacramento Camellia Show as patrons seek out her latest creation.
Thanks to her beautiful depictions of Sacramento’s favorite flower, Tsukamoto is the show’s official button artist. For the past five years, she has designed the commemorative button that has become the show’s best-selling souvenir.
Her run started in 2012, when she won the camellia society’s annual button competition on her first try with an eye-catching swirl that captured the theme “Crazy for Camellias.” For the next three button contests, her designs beat out scores of other entries each year.
“(For this year’s show), the society’s board decided just to have me draw the button,” Tsukamoto said. “They asked me if I would consider doing the 2016 button. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ ”
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Priced at $1 each, the 1 3/4 -inch buttons are available at the show and at Corti Brothers market, where Tsukamoto used to work as a gift basket designer.
Tsukamoto loves being part of the camellia show, which celebrates its 92nd edition next weekend. Growing up in Sacramento, she remembers when camellias were king and the centerpiece of a major civic festival.
“Everybody had camellias, and everybody went to the show,” she said. “I went to the show when I was very young with my parents. We lived in the Rosemont neighborhood, and my parents grew camellias on the shady side of the house. It was a much bigger thing back then with a parade and everything.”
Perhaps as a harbinger of her button success, Tsukamoto won the camellia show poster contest when she was 12. “I met the camellia queen,” she said. “It was a big deal.”
While the festival and parade disappeared several years ago, the Sacramento Camellia Show continues to draw local flower lovers, thanks in part to camellias’ deep roots in our community. Sacramentans have grown camellias since the first plants were imported from Japan in 1852.
“Our show is still the largest in the world,” said Don Lesmeister, a longtime fixture at Sacramento’s camellia showcase. “We have the best around – period.”
“We should have about 3,000 blooms this year,” added Carol Schanz, the society’s president. “We’re also the oldest camellia show in the United States. That’s kind of cool.”
With a degree in art, Tsukamoto started drawing camellias and other flowers as a hobby. To both gardeners and artists, camellias represent strong cultural ties to Japanese Americans.
“My first attempt (at a show button) was a very traditional design,” she noted. “A friend said, ‘That looks very Japanese,’ and part of that is me. I put some of myself into everything I draw.”
To create her button designs, she doodles hundreds of thumbnail sketches.
“For my first two years, I used my own camellias as my models,” she said. “Since then, I take lots of photos of flowers at the show.”
She went back to her own Yuletide camellia for the 2016 button depicting “River City Camellias,” this year’s show theme at Memorial Auditorium. The red Sasanqua camellia forms the paddle wheel on a riverboat.
After next weekend’s show, Tsukamoto will turn her attention to her other passion: baseball. Both retired, Tsukamoto and her husband, Randy, are devoted San Francisco Giants fans. Each summer, they travel to away games to catch the Giants in a different city.
“So far, we’ve done half the stadiums,” Joanne said. “We’re planning our summer trips now.”
Her own garden shows her allegiance; soon, it will be all Giants orange, a color not found in camellias.
“I threw a bunch of California poppy seeds out there in the front yard,” she said. “It’s going to be bright, bright orange this spring.”
92nd annual Sacramento Camellia Show
Where: Memorial Auditorium, 1515 J St., Sacramento
When: 3-6 p.m. next Saturday, March 5; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. March 6
Entries: Public is welcome to enter homegrown camellias in the show. Entry deadline is 10 a.m. March 5; first-time exhibitors should arrive before 9 a.m.