Monday, April 26, 2010

Longview Camellias

The Garden Library of the New Orleans Town Gardeners, located in Tulane University's Southeastern Architectural Archive, retains records associated with a 1930's-1940's Alabama camellia nursery business.

In 1915, Robert O. Rubel, Jr. began growing camellias at his Longview estate in Crichton. His Oriental garden was planted there in 1917, its entrance at the terminus of a pine thicket. By 1928, Rubel sought to develop scientific data sets recording his exhaustive soil analyses and hoped to disseminate this information to all camellia growers. He also became an avid forager, locating unusual camellia varieties in rural gardens and purchasing them for other collectors. He considered camellias "the most valuable ornamental plants in commerce" and sought to educate his customers about proper nomenclature, growing habits, and horticultural history. A book collector as well as a gardener, Rubel acquired a library of camellia books and manuscripts, which he touted as "the only trustworthy source" for correctly identifying plant names. He commissioned ex libris cards for his book collection, and stored his precious volumes in a fireproof safe.

Between 1931 and 1932, Rubel sold thirteen carloads of collected specimens to one South Carolina customer, a transaction that he believed to be the largest sale of camellias since their introduction to Europe in the early eighteenth century. The meticulous plantsman sold his camellias with embossed copper labels attached to each plant, so that the tag could serve as a permanent means of correct identification.

The Garden Library is open to researchers Mondays-Fridays from 9-12 and 1-5.

1 comment:

Cammie Cowan said...

I knew Mr. Rubel when I was a child, back in the late 1950s, early 1960s.

He fancied children, in a totally harmless sort of way, and delighted in giving birthday parties for them; I was fortunate enough to be one so entertained.

He had a couple of massive lions, which I was always told had originated as decorations for the roof of the Mobile County courthouse. I think they were supposed to have blown down in the hurricane of 1916. Mr. Rubel had them wired for sound, and they greeted guests with the most wonderful roars. (They are now, I think, in the collection of the Museum of the City of Mobile.)

He also photographed each of his guests, later sending out prints. He had all sorts of gadgets to entertain youngsters, and delighted on introducing them to his "wife," a skeleton he kept in a closet.

My father, as a professional bookman, recognized the value of the book collection. I remember the big safe clearly, and that it had a typed label identifying the safe as containing nothing but "worthless old books," intended to keep any would-be thieves from destroying the safe in hopes of treasure!

I remember the property as being wonderfully wild and untamed, with lots of camellias planted in what seemed to my unknowing eye as a random pattern.

Cammie Plummer East Cowan, 2011. (