Crazy for Camellias


Fred and Donna Manske have some camellias in the garden at their Hilton Head Island home, but their true camellia craze can be found at the Camellia Garden at the Coastal Discovery Museum.

The couple created this free garden in 2009; today, it is home to 131 exotic and historic plants in a multitude of colors, sizes, origins, blooming duration and fragrances that bloom from Halloween to St. Patrick’s Day.

The Manskes spent a year researching camellias, meeting with horticultural specialists and attending seminars, before creating the 1.2-acre site and funding the purchase of the camellias. The couple — both Master Gardeners — tend to the garden several times a week. The camellias, which are all identified with brief descriptions, are planted 8 to 10 feet apart, so visitors can see all sides up close.

They got the idea for the camellia garden during a walk at Honey Horn.

“We were walking out here one day 11 years ago, toward the evening, and it was just a beautiful spot and wide open, and it kind of hit us,” said Fred, who has been on the Coastal Discovery Museum’s board for about 15 years. “This would be a beautiful spot for camellias.”

It’s a special place in the Lowcountry, the Manskes say.

The garden also boasts a very special camellia: an Alba Plana, one of the most popular varieties of camellia in the Southeast, with 200 white petals.

Fred Donna Manske2

“When you can’t go to the beach, people can come here and see beauty and have fellowship in the garden,” said Donna, a retired executive leadership coach and past president of the Women’s Association of Hilton Head Island. “It’s a very spiritual place for people and good memories. People come out here to meditate.”

The garden, draped by a canopy of oak trees and Spanish moss, earned a spot on the American Camellia Garden Trail in 2016, sponsored by the American Camellia Society and joining an elite roster of only 30 other gardens nationwide.

Fred Donna Manske3Located on the southeast corner of Honey Horn next to the pavilion, the garden is accessible for people with disabilities and those pushing strollers. Its design is tiered, with the biggest and tallest plants positioned in the rear, such as the kumagai, a Japanese native that produces deep scarlet single flowers and can grow to 12-feet high.

The garden also boasts a very special camellia: an Alba Plana, one of the most popular varieties of camellia in the Southeast, with 200 white petals. This particular plant was gifted to the Manskes for their garden from Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston. Founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, the historic garden introduced the common camellia japonica from China to the U.S.

“It’s a stunning plant and was registered way back in the 1790s,” said Fred of the medium-size, double flowered porcelain-white flower.

Around the world, there are about 10,000 registered camellias. None are native to America; the evergreen bush originated in China and Japan and is related to the tea plant. 


Ready to grow your own camellia garden? With the right soil, location and irrigation, they’ll provide a dazzling display of color. 

Plant camellias in the spring or fall in acidic soil that drains well. Go for a shady area, not in direct sun. Dig the hole twice as wide and equal in depth to the camellia’s root ball, and position it 10 to 20 feet away from anything else to accommodate the roots. Regular watering for the first year after planting is essential. As they mature, camellias will need less water and can accept more sun.

No room in the yard? Camellias also grow well in containers. Plant them in gallon-size containers with a potting mix with at least 50% organic material, and make sure there’s a liberal drainage hole.