The calamity was to shape the rest of his life: Ackerman died July 6 at the age of 89, but he left the world with a raft of new camellias bred to endure temperatures down to 15 degrees below zero. Short of a new ice age, which doesn’t seem the prevailing climatic trend, camellias are safe now in the Washington garden, thanks to Bill Ackerman. Moreover, he has extended the range of a flower associated with the old South as far north as Nova Scotia.
Thirty-five years ago, many gardeners around here thought they had lost one of their most special plants: Camellias had all the big-leafed evergreen beauty of rhododendrons, hollies and Southern magnolias, but with the added bonus of large, showy waxy blooms, in shades of red, pink and white. They like gardens with partial shade and need a sheltered spot in winter to avoid wind damage; thus the shade garden becomes an asset. Most of all, they flower at a time of year when much of the garden is bare.
Varieties of a species called Camellia sasanqua bloom in the fall into winter. The showier, more iconic C. japonica varieties flower in late winter into early spring.
If the plant has a fault — other than the fact that flowers in February can get zapped by a freeze — it’s that a blossom that looks so fragrant is scentless. Sasanquas can have a perfume, but it is slight and musky to many noses.
Ackerman was working on breeding more fragrant varieties when the freezes changed the focus of his work.
His breakthrough in cold-hardiness came with a species named C. oleifera. Two named varieties, Lu Shan Snow and Plain Jane, survived the freezes at the arboretum in Northeast Washington. Oleifera’s flowers aren’t very decorative, and it is grown in its native China for its seed oil. Its popular name is the tea-oil camellia.
Ackerman also used another species, C. hiemalis, in his efforts. Often his crosses would be as complicated as he needed them to be to create the garden plant he wanted. For example, a variety named Winter’s Snowman has as one parent Plain Jane and the other a seedling he raised by crossing C. sasanqua Narumigata and C. hiemalis Shishi-gashiri.
This is nerdy stuff, but the point is that it takes four to six years for a seedling to bloom, and thus to be evaluated. When you consider that he introduced some 50 cold-hardy varieties, winnowed from thousands of hand-pollinated seedlings, you get a sense of his passion for this quest and the number of years he spent on his work.