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Reconsidering the Camellia

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"Lost L.A.: Descanso Gardens" explores the history of one of Southern California's most beloved public gardens. From its pre-colonial origins as an oak woodland to its contemporary role as a living museum, the film examines how the Descanso Gardens reflects the social, political, and cultural evolution of Los Angeles.

Sometimes I wish plants could talk. I already think of them in somewhat human terms. For instance, the Matilija “fried-egg” poppies are the enduring natives from a drier time, before Southern California was irrigated with imported water from the Owens Valley and elsewhere. Los Angeles’ official flower, the bird of paradise, is the exotic diplomat from South Africa. And of course, there are the palm trees, immigrants from Mexico and the Middle East, which become icons of Los Angeles.

So what about camellias, the bright red, pink, and white blooms from Asia that brighten up the landscape during certain times of the year?

I remember camellias from my father’s gardening route. Every other ranch-style home seemed to have them. The camellia trees and bushes were perfectly functional but unobtrusive. The blooming flowers gave the yard enough color but not enough to call attention to them.

In spite of my childhood preconceived notions, I’ve come to recently reevaluate my judgment about the camellia, in particular the species Camellia japonica

First there’s regional pride: Southern California has the largest collection of camellias in North America at Descanso Gardens, the former estate of newspaper publisher Manchester Boddy which has become a Los Angeles County property operated by the nonprofit Descanso Gardens Guild. The approximately 20-acre collection is designated an International Camellia Garden of Excellence by the International Camellia Society.

Camellias beneath oak trees at Descanso Gardens
Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.

If you go to Descanso’s Camellias Forest in the heat of summer, all you will encounter are mid-sized trees with green leaves, ordinary and unadorned underneath the giant oaks. But if you make the visit later, especially from winter to spring, the branches will be heavy with blooming flowers.

How did Descanso become such a repository of camellias?

It goes back to a Japanese man from Shizuoka Prefecture, Miyosaku Uyematsu. An early Issei, first-generation Japanese immigrant, Uyematsu came to San Francisco in 1904 at the age of 22. He reported on his immigration papers that he was a silversmith. Within ten years, he would start successful plant nursery enterprises in multiple locations across Los Angeles County.

A savvy entrepreneur, Miyosaku was more popularly known in business circles as F.M., short for his adopted “American” name of Francis and his Japanese given name of Miyosaku. Both he and Manchester Boddy shared a penchant for business and an openness to work with people very different from themselves.

F.M. Uyematsu, Star Nursery proprietor
F.M. Uyematsu, Star Nursery proprietor. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.

Uyematsu came to California before the state’s 1913 anti-alien land laws. He and a partner, an immigrant from Hiroshima, began a nursery specializing in Japanese imported plants like the camellia back in 1908 on Figueroa and 12th streets in downtown Los Angeles. The endeavor was a complete success, enabling each man by 1912 to buy land and start his own independent nursery in Newmark (present-day Montebello). Uyematsu called his five-acre enterprise Star Nursery. Using the name of his eldest American-born child, Francis, he later acquired additional property in Sierra Madre and Manhattan Beach.

According to various reports, Uyematsu was first and foremost focused on his camellias to make money. Boddy, in this sense, was the same in his later effort in the 1940s. But then both these men got camellia fever and putting aside monetary interests, they began to collect them independently.

Uyematsu had the much earlier collection. According to the International Camellia Society, he made a trip to Japan in 1930 and purchased hybridized camellia seeds, planting 25,000 them. He also imported 113 of “the best varieties obtainable at that time.” By 1942, he had about 60 new seedling camellias and about 250 surviving Japanese plants growing on his Sierra Madre ranch.

Then came President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, leading to the mass exclusion of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. Uyematsu, like his other middle-aged Issei colleagues, were faced with the devastating dilemma: what should they do with their plants and businesses?

In February 22, 1942, Boddy purchased 300,000 camellias from Star Nursery before the Uyematsu family was sent to Pomona Assembly Center and Manzanar concentration camp. The publisher also acquired plants, including camellias, of Mission Nursery in San Gabriel, operated by Fred Waichi Yoshimura.

Manchester Boddy
Manchester Boddy. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.

These Japanese-Americans’ predicament became Boddy’s gain. Did the newspaper publisher somehow take advantage of the Issei nurserymen to expand his horticultural collection?

Boddy was certainly sympathetic to the plight of Japanese-Americans. At a time when legislators were calling for the ouster of Japanese immigrants in the 1920s, he penned “Japanese in America,” dedicated to the “preservation of peace the presentation of actual facts regarding the character and accomplishments of this alien people.”

Later, the Southern California Flower Market manager Frank Kuwahara helped champion the establishment of Japanese-style garden at Descanso in 1966. Kuwahara, who vowed never return to Brookside Park in Pasadena after being barred from entry to its swimming pool as a child, wasn’t the type to help an institution that had mistreated his colleagues. Of course, it’s possible that he was unaware of what actually transpired.

Descanso Gardens: Learn the Untold History of the Japanese Incarceration and Camellias

What is definitely known is that Uyematsu did not let what happened to him and the 11,000 others at the Manzanar concentration camp in the Owens Valley prevent him and his community from watching flowers grow. He donated 1,000 cherry and wisteria trees to Manzanar; the gift was used for Cherry Park in the fire break in front of an orphanage for incarcerees.

I was intrigued to recently discover that among the other plants Uyematsu had shipped to Manzanar was the camellia. I have yet to know how it did in the desert. Uyematsu did not take any of his plants with him when he returned to his wholesale nursery business in Southern California after World War II.

The living legacy of Uyematsu’s camellias – 16 among the 600 known varieties – still remains at Descanso. These camellias are designated with signage and detailed maps.

Next winter I plan to go to Descanso’s Camellia and Tea Festival in February, when the flowers will be at the height of their beauty. I plan to ask to ask them some questions then. How was the move from Sierra Madre to La Canada? How do you like your new home? And do you remember the hands of F.M. Uyematsu and other Issei who tended you 75 years ago?

Camellia nitidissima v. nitidissima
Camellia nitidissima v. nitidissima. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.
Camellia x williamsii 'Buttons'n Bows'
Camellia x williamsii 'Buttons'n Bows'. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.
Camellia japonica 'Duchess of Sutherland'
Camellia japonica 'Duchess of Sutherland'. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.

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