It wasn’t until he came to the agency’s research station near Beltsville, at Glenn Dale, that he began his work on camellias, along with Japanese iris and other ornamental plants.
When he retired from the arboretum in the early 1980s, this merely allowed him to spend more time working on cold-hardy camellias at his seven-acre farm in Montgomery County, where he had a few greenhouses to raise his seedlings.
Most of his introductions bloom in the fall and early winter, including his Winter series. Winter’s Beauty is a compact, upright shrub with soft pink blooms; Winter’s Dream has a stronger pink, semi-double flower and is more vigorous and upright. Winter’s Snowman is white with anemone-type flowers, suited for mass planting as a narrow hedge.
His later Ashton series included Ashton’s Ballet, with rose-like flowers in two-tone pink; Ashton’s Snow, with white semi-double blooms that last from early November to late January; and Ashton’s Supreme, which is covered in deep lavender-pink blooms in the fall. He was particularly proud of Ashton’s Ballet, Kitty Ackerman told me.
The form and habit of his plants was particularly important to him, she said. Previously, when camellias were grown in greenhouses for showing, the focus was flower form, but Ackerman wanted his camellias to function as handsome garden plants and selected varieties for their leaf color and gloss and the shape of the shrub.
“He tried very hard to get people to appreciate camellias for their landscape potential,” she said.
He also collaborated with other hybridizers, notably Clifford Parks in Chapel Hill, N.C., who also worked on cold-hardiness. “He concentrated on oleifera and I concentrated on varieties with japonica,” he said. “He was very enthusiastic about his work and very anxious to communicate and to collaborate with people.”
Margaret Pooler, who succeeded Ackerman and another prolific hybridizer at the arboretum, Don Egolf, said that “you can see the great strides” they achieved. Egolf, who died in 1990, is perhaps best known for his work on crape myrtles. “They took a plant and totally changed the way we can use it,” said Pooler.
Ackerman, in his book “Beyond the Camellia Belt,” said that in plant breeding “there are no guarantees. Perhaps it is the failures that make the successes so much sweeter.”
Bill, we thank you.