Riverside Park Camellia Garden

by Tim Gilmore, 3/2/2018

1. 50 Years

The moon tonight shines especially bright. And a thousand small petal’d bright blooms shine in these dark green leaves. What the moon and the camellia blossoms share is the bright and glowing milk of illumination.

“White Camellia” by Kawarazaki Kodo, 1920s

I remember December, 1997. I remember sitting at my Brother word processor by the window, the phone ringing, a friend asking me if I was okay. I didn’t know what she was talking about. A tornado had ripped through the neighborhood. I’d thought I’d heard a freight train distant in the wind and the rain and my music. I remember how the oak trees twisted around like licorice.

The camellia garden in Riverside Park suffered terribly that night. The storm destroyed more than 50 trees there—pines and oaks and redbuds and palms.

Tonight the camellia garden, planted in February 1968, is 50 years old. So are the oldest and tallest camellia japonicas in the grove.

“The first planting was 100 camellias,” says John Searcy, director of the camellia committee for the Men’s Garden Club of Jacksonville. At its height, more than 200 camellias comprised the grove, but now the number is down to 83.

When the tornado twisted through the 11 acre park that early December, many of the camellias already were budding and blooming. The winds ripped fast-food bags and newspapers from the basketball court, blew napkins and beer cans and mounds of feather and feces from the pond, volley’d water birds through the trees, and blasted petals and pistils from more than 100 varieties of camellia.

Those camellias now half a century old, their blossoms red against the heights of oaks behind them, might have another half century to thrive. Camellias in the Florida woods sometimes survive 150 years.

2. Spirals in Blooms and Time

They rise into the most exquisite architecture in the city. The design reinvents itself incessantly. It greens. Darkens. Unfurls. Opens in circles, no, cycles, swirls, wheels within wheels. Crowns. Hearts. The most sensitive and secret and tender architectonics open innocently, hundreds upon a single tall tree, for everyone to see. Conspicuous. Shameless. Then spiral into the Golden Ratio, 1.61803398875, the Fibonacci Sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…

The grove shades its center dark. It’s the center of the city, yet private. Deep in the grove, the roar and moan of cars, the bass and tinny rattle of radios and radiators, the constant slurring groan along highway concrete engineered far overhead, the noise makes its way inside but baffled, buttressed back out, buffered, muffled.

I’ve consulted numerous architectural guides to the city, but have failed to find the Camellia Grove listed. I thumb past the designs of the city’s most famous architect, the Southern Prairie-style genius, who modeled his work after Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Henry John Klutho, past the architect who wrote a book about Klutho and studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Broward, past Henrietta Dozier, the city’s early black female architect, of whose designs almost nothing still stands.

What architectural descriptions I find come from the American Camellia Society, which lists 5,000 varieties of the genus.

I find double rows of large petals surrounding this conspicuous projection of stamens and pistils.

I enter prodigious unfoldings of rows of dense intricate petals, cupped and curved and curving again on themselves, aggressively symmetrically totally obscuring stamens.

I divine outer petals relaxed and flat and undulating, open like wings, convex central masses of petaloids with stamens intermixed.

Let’s meet herein like witches and decide how the fate of this camellia grove determines the growth or decline, the success or recess of the city. Let me better clarify the model. The organic health of the city outside this grove will mirror, mimetically, the city that is this grove of flowers.

What happens in this grove—what mimesis, what simulacrum, what voodoo—echoes out as the city and determines who will kiss whom behind the Volstead downtown, the car collision down in Baymeadows, the moment of conception up along Norwood of the child who’ll read this story and recognize herself 23 years from now. If you spend a mid-February-day counting the blooms deep inside the grove, you’ll understand, you’ll believe me.

portrait of Matsuo Basho by Katsushika Hokusai

Breezes rouse the leaves and flowers lazily, magically, witchily. I seem to hear John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano. I hear the Korean poet Yi Sang saying, “I believe that people should be plants.” I hear the 17th century Japanese poet Basho:

Camellia petal / fell in silent dawn / spilling / a water jewel.

3. Histories Ravished and Savaged

By 1967, Frank Bisbee grew more than a thousand acknowledged varieties of camellia at his home on Trout River Boulevard, when representatives of “The Club” visited his garden, his grove, in the winter blooming season.

“Camellia Petals Scattering,” 1929, by Gyoshu Hayami

Did other cities distinguish themselves with rose gardens? Didn’t they rise above other towns by virtue and diversity of their botanical gardens? After all, what town had no zoological gardens, however apathetic, abusive, pathetic?

The official “History of the Camellia Garden, Riverside Park” lists no names, no times, no dedications of the heart.

“The Club members did not know of another city with a large public camellia garden.” / “The location will be selected by a committee from the Club and the City.” / “Plants will be supplied by the Club.” / “Beds will be maintained by the City.”

Nobody seems to know who, besides Jax businessman Frank Bisbee, created the initial garden. Nobody knows why and whence the demise of two-thirds of the camellias that once bloomed and grew here. Nobody knows the names of every variety of camellia surviving.

No one knows how many camellias the ’97 tornado ravished and savaged. John Searcy feels sure the big freeze of 2014 that burst the park pipes and flooded the camellia roots for 10 days killed not one tree.

4. Psychogeographical Bowers of Sweet Dreams of Nothingness and Human Lives that Should be More Like Those of Plants

Iaian Sinclair, one of London’s primary psychogeographical writers, who publishes thousand-page perambulations, testaments of his wandering on foot around his home-city, wrote his strange and unclassifiable Lud Heat in 1975, connecting the dots between ancient churches, pointing to strange shapes that overlay the map of the city, unseen by the millions of people who move through them daily—

psychogeographical British writers, Iaian Sinclair, foreground, and Alan Moore, 2011

“So many spectres operate along these fringes: Yeats in the British Museum, at the time of the Ripper murders, researching into Blake—Blake & Newton, polar opposites. Milton; his early-morning walks over the ground where St. George’s was to be built.” Or. “St. Luke’s obelisk (the church itself is decayed, the roof gone) stands over Burnhill Fields, plague pit, burial place of William Blake, Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan. Plague-year excavations discovering the antiquity of this site as a field in inhumation: pre-Roman.”

All of Lud Heat proceeds this way, seminal text for the psychogeographical understanding of a city—a city as the outgrowth of the human psyche across the landscape, the gospel my heart and mind and loin have told me to write. I want to draw mysterious shapes across an aerial map of the camellia grove.

“Camellias,” Searcy says, “are incredibly durable. If you’re going to kill them, you have to do it with fire or severe drought. Even the diseases that affect them might just slow them down, but they already grow very slowly.”

In fact, other than height and trunk widths, he says, you can date camellias according to time periods in which they might have been planted. During the Great Depression, most people only planted what they could eat. Americans planted Victory Gardens during World War II, and when the war was over, civic clubs flourished like no other time in the 20th century, civic organizations of every kind—Scouts, Kiwanis, Rotary, and of course, garden clubs, even if people saw them as women’s activities until the late 1960s. And Americans planted camellias. After World War II, Americans planted camellias en masse and extensively.

Han Kang, author of the 2007 Korean novel The Vegetarian, influenced by the Yi Sang notion that “People should be more like plants.”

“Do you know why Americans don’t plant camellias as much as they did back then?” John asks. “People want instant growth. They don’t want to wait.”

Camellias require patience. They take time. Camellias don’t care about your deadlines. They operate on their own. The recompense is immense, but you might have to wait 20 or 30 or 50 years. If you plant a camellia grove, you’re doing it for someone else, not necessarily for you.

But if you walk into the camellia grove, the northeastern quadrant of Riverside Park, itself three acres less than at its genesis in 1869, you’ll enter a world planted by people whose names are, but for Bennett’s, forgotten. But certain camellias will stand five times your height and cover themselves with blooms if you find them the right time in late January or early February, and if you can ignore the trash and soiled toilet paper and cheap gin bottles scattered about two or three oak trees at least as old as the city, then you’re a Romantic and you’ll understand the mimesis of the camellia grove and you’ll fall in love and you’ll know how to love is to lose, even before the loss, because loving deeply requires your understanding of the great loss coming.

Keats says “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us, and a sleep / Full of sweet dreams,” and “Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth / Of noble natures, of the gloomy days, / Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways / Made for our searching,” yes, doubtless, Yes!, Keats says, “[I]n spite of all, / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon, / Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon.”

Joseph Severn’s portrait of the dead John Keats. The painter claimed the poet died in his arms.

Shipwreck’d in the grove, unable to stand, knowing hardly who I am, invoking all the history, all the geography of the city, holding tight to the theory of mimesis, hoping that any wizardry I might muster in the dirty earthen security of these camellias yet might save, if not me, my city, I’m hoping that any wizardry I might muster in the dirty earthen security of these camellias yet might save, if not my city, maybe me.