Many years ago, in a family backyard in Alhambra, California, a 17 year old boy started propagating Camellias with the help of his mother and father.

That young man’s name was Julius Nuccio.

Over the last 89 years, since 1935, the Nuccio family have been responsible for growing, breeding and introducing some of the most iconic Camellias in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s white, pink or red, large-flowered or small; if it came from Nuccio’s it’s going to be good.

Flamboyant Camellia ‘Guilio Nuccio’, released in 1955

The Nuccio name will soon pass into horticultural history. The current custodians of the Nuccio Nurseries, now on a much larger site in Altadena, California, aren’t as young as they once were, and this horticultural dynasty will draw to an end.

Who can blame them? Nursery work is very hard and it takes a lot of time and effort to produce quality plants, and the truth is that the Camellias and azaleas that the nursery grows aren’t as popular as they once were.

International Appeal

Nuccio Camellias are grown wherever Camellias will grow. The Nuccio family, along with the Jury family in New Zealand and a handful of others, are some of the elite world’s most Camellia breeders.

Camellia ‘Nuccio’s Jewel’, released in 1978

Plant breeding is a patient game, with some seedlings taking a decade or more to produce their first bloom. To breed Camellias you must have land to grow seedlings to flowering size, and moreover you must also have a way to generate income while your new Camellias grow, flower, are assessed and the best are propagated for sale.

Above all you must have an excellent eye for what makes a good plant.

What Makes A Good Camellia

The more modern Camellias tend to be more compact in habit than older plants (although not always of course). The compact habit means more branching in a small space, and that should translate into better flowering.

The smaller stature also works for smaller gardens, but when it comes to good Camellias we’re looking for serious flower power!

The superlative Camellia ‘Freedom Bell’, released in 1965

Beyond that the flower should be well presented on the plant, so not hidden away in the foliage, but essentially it all comes down to whether the colour is desirable, the shape or form of the flower is pleasing, and the flowers just look good.

The International Camellia Society’s official register currently lists in excess of 50,000 accepted names for Camellias around the world; not all are available everywhere and not all make good plants for modern gardens, but the number gives an impression of how widely Camellias are cultivated and how much variety they offer.

Gardens And Beyond

Go to a Camellia collection and you will find Nuccio Camellias. Go to a Camellia show and you will find Nuccio Camellias on the show bench.

Camellia ‘Nuccio’s Ruby’, a magnficent red released in 1974

Some are easy to spot because they have the Nuccio name. Camellia ‘Guilio Nuccio’, for example, is grown and shown in the UK; it bears fabulous flowers that are equally enchanting in the garden and on the show bench. C. ‘Guilio Nuccio’ was named for Julius Nuccio’s father, who had been instrumental in getting the nursery through its early years.

Lamenting The Loss

Camellias aren’t as popular as they used to be. Modern tastes gravitate towards the herbaceous plants, and quite a few fine garden plants fall out of favour as a result.

When Camellias are out of flower gardeners tend to think of them as austere, large green hulks that contribute little to the garden when the garden is deemed to be at its best in summer. Add to that the annual gamble that spring flowering Camellias will survive frost and rain in many areas, and it’s easy to see why interest in Camellias has been waning.

Not every garden can accomodate a big Camellia like ‘Francie L.’, released in 1964

The nursery world is increasingly skewed toward the larger nurseries who produce massive batches of the same few plants. These nurseries allow us to benefit from widely available, high quality and usually inexpensive plants. However reliance on these nurseries means that we lose the diversity of plants available to us.

By contrast the smaller nurseries grow smaller batches of more niche plants. We find old varieties in small nurseries, plants that have generally fallen from favour but that we still value, and even new plants that a small-scale grower has faith in and wants to grow but a larger grower wouldn’t be interested in.

Not Gone Just Yet

The precise end for the Nuccio Nurseries has not, as far as I can tell, been set. It will be fairly soon, as the process of selling the land is underway; there is a lovely write-up in the LA Times here that is worth a read.

I’m not saying that you must make a pilgrimage to Altadena to buy Camellias from the great nursery itself (or order from the website), but if you are thinking of buying Camellias from the Nuccio Nurseries then don’t leave it too long.

Even gardeners less than keen on Camellias are drawn to Camellia ‘Bob’s Tinsie’, released in 1962

The end of the Nuccio Nurseries won’t mean the end of Camellias in the US by any means, but it is right to mark the end of a family business that has made a significant contribution to gardening around the world. This is a moment in horticultural history that deserves to be noted.

All Camellias featured in this article were raised/released by the Nuccios. These are, however, just the ones that I have reasonable pictures of; there are so many, and the nursery’s plant list is filled with familiar names of great Camellias that I’ve seen and even grown but not yet photographed. I should also add that the Nuccio family has also raised and promoted many exceptional azaleas, but are better known for their Camellias.