Barbara Tuffli and her passion for camellias

by Linda Hubbard Gulker on March 14, 2012

camellia grower and photographer Barbara Tuffli

When you walk along the pathways in Barbara Tuffli’s garden, you find yourself looking up, not the usual place one encounters camellias. But many of her camellias, most of which are in bloom now, are the height of trees.

Barbara lived in the Atherton home her mother named Camellia Hedges when she was in high school and then inherited the property in the mid-1980s. “I’d always enjoyed gardens and flowers, and when we got the property, I felt a sense of responsibility as a garden steward,” she said, adding that she’s out in her garden every day.

Every day that she’s home, that is. She offers landscape consulting, is active on the lecture circuit, and is called upon to judge camellia competitions, activities described on her website Camellias By Design. “In the camellia world, we are always looking for the most perfect bloom,” she said. “To me, it is subjective. For example, is the perfect bud center really superior to an open center?”

Barbara is also a fine art photographer of camellias, which she prints in editions of 15. “I think of the photos very much like portraits of people,” she said. “Each camellia on a single bush will have its own unique characteristics. What I’m trying to do is capture the essence of the beauty of the variety and, beyond that, the subtlety of each flower.”

While camellias are a very common garden plant, a conversation with Barbara reveals a host of little known facts. For example, most think of camellias as a winter blooming plant but Camellia sasanqua blooms in the fall. “It’s also very fragrant,” said Barbara.

Another surprise: the tea we drink is made from the new leaves of Camellia sinensis. “I originally thought it was restricted to green teas,” said Barbara, “but it’s also black teas. The difference is in how it’s dried, fermented and processed.”

And, while we often think of camellias as coming in hues of reds, pinks and whites, there are also yellow camellias. “The yellow is one of my most treasured camellias,” said Barbara. “They come from China and are named Camellia nitidissima.”

According to Barbara, the most common variety is Camellia japonica. “Camellia reticulata hybrid (in photo below with Barbara) are just as easy to grow,” she said. “Their flowers are typically six inches across, so quite large.”

Barbara’s camellias are scattered in a garden that hosts over 500 plants and includes a designated camellia nursery. Return visits are planned, as the garden is a four season botanical showcase.

About how it all comes together, Barbara cited one guiding factor: “Why not find the most interesting plant for every particular garden situation.”

Photos by Scott R. Kline

Barbara Tuffli with reticulata hybrid camellia

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