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Camellia Frank Brownlee

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Camellia Frank Brownlee offers smoldering red flowers with yellow stamens. It is dramatic in the garden landscape. But who was Frank Brownlee and why is a camellia named after him?

In 1953, the president of Clemson University at the time, Dr. R.F. Poole, wrote a short article for the American Camellia Yearbook. Dr. Poole referenced Mr. Brownlee as being a director of the South Carolina Camellia Society. The subject of the letter was a discussion of the establishment of a camellia test garden at Clemson.

As a side note, efforts were successful as the Spartanburg Herald-Journal reported the establishment of the camellia test garden. Mr. Brownlee served as chair of the camellia test garden for a number of years.

Mr. Brownlee also served as president of the South Carolina Camellia Society, but when? Also, was he related (the son perhaps) to the early 20th century actor by the same name?  If you didn’t realize there was an actor of some fame named Frank Brownlee you are not alone. Brownlee (the actor) appeared in over 100 films in a 30-year stretch from 1911 to 1943. Even though they shared a name, the two men were not related, at least by blood anyway.

Isn’t this the point? These men, a camellia expert and an actor, lived their lives and mattered and did great things. They loved and lived and I am sure they cried. They are human after all. Is the memory of a flower enough? For most of us, it is more of a remembrance than we can hope for. I know nothing of my great-grandparents, yet I am from them and I owe them.

Mr. Brownlee and his wife Eunice had a daughter, Claudia, born in 1926 and died in 1944 as World War II raged in Europe. Was she there? The heartbreak of a father losing a daughter is unimaginable. Yet he continued. As for Mr. and Mrs. Brownlee, I like to think theirs was a great and lasting love.

About that camellia test garden, Dr. Poole referenced in his 1953 letter, it is now the 295 acre home of the South Carolina Botanical Garden.camellia japonica

What about the Camellia Frank Brownlee?

Frank Brownlee is a Camellia japonica hybrid. According to the Camellia Registry, Frank Brownlee was a chance seedling that bloomed for the first time in 1959. It was eight years old at the time of that first bloom. The American Camellia Yearbook recognized Frank Brownlee as a known cultivar in 1966.

The American Camellia Yearbook describes Frank Brownlee as a large semi-double flower that is deep red with golden anthers. It is slightly astonishing to see and photograph a plant described perfectly almost fifty years ago.

Camellia Frank Brownlee is further described as having upright growth habit with dark foliage. Camellia Frank Brownlee is definitely late-flowering, which I love. Count on blooms from mid-March into April, depending on location. It is hard for me to get excited about the winter flowers such as pansies and camellias, as I find it maddeningly out of reach, the hint of spring against the brown turf and gray skies.

Camellia japonicas requirements in brief: Acidic well-draining soil. Protection from afternoon sun and drying winds. Camellia japonica Frank Brownlee as I recall is hardy zones 7-9. It grows 6′-10′ tall by 8′-10′ wide, and in my experience camellias are rather deliberate growers.

Mr. Brownlee died in 1978. I never did find out why Frank Brownlee was the namesake for a camellia. The camellia named after him will always have a place in my heart. I trust he was a good man.

Barrie, The Landscape of Us, 2014


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