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The Camellias

The first painting of the camellias: a 10”x10” titled ‘One Fairer than My Love’ (by Jennifer Gillen, 2022)

Last February, I visited a botanical garden during an unseasonably warm afternoon. It was an overcast day. The clouds created moody backdrops for the flowers. Yes, there were February flowers. Tons of them: violas, early tulips, Lenten roses, and camellias. As usual, I was sketching and snapping photos. There are some days in the garden when the atmosphere is magical. This was one of those times.

February 2021 camellia flower in a photo I took at the Dallas Arboretum.

While drawing a particularly striking red camellia, a man approached me. I expected him to say something because of the way he was looking at my drawing. I did not expect him to say what he said. Raising his brows knowingly, he commented, “it’s a good thing you’re drawing these flowers today. Come next week they’ll all be dead.” Then he laughed and walked on down the path. I found his remark pessimistic, but he was correct.

The weather changed and a storm of snow and ice moved in over the following days. Surely, the camellia flowers had died. It felt kind of tragic to me. One day, a flower might be thriving: fully bloomed and beckoning pollinators. The next, it is weighed down with cold, withered and brown. It’s what happens during a false spring.

Camellias are hardy in cold weather. The shrubs bear the cold and rebound easily from deep freezes. Their blooms are more delicate though. I returned this year in early March to check on the same camellias. They were covered with new buds that had not yet opened. I hope that there is not another freeze so I can return see them in a few weeks.

While waiting, I’m painting the ones that died. The man was right about the weather and about another thing. It was good that I drew and photographed the ones that died. We will never see them again…except in photos and paintings.

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