As I rounded the corner on my street the other day, I noticed a neighbor’s camellia bush in the fading evening light. Or, rather, I saw its many purple petals that had fallen from the shrub and were strewn about on the brown winter ground.
Purple blossoms seem like an unusual thing to see outside in Atlanta in December. But, then again, camellias have always struck me as unusual flowers. Camellias bloom when few other plants do – in the fall, winter and even early spring. They grow best not in full sunlight, but in partial shade. They don’t need to be planted too deeply or fertilized too often. Originally from Asia, the southern U.S. is also considered camellia country (it’s Alabama’s state flower). There are more than 3,000 named varieties and they can be found in a wide range of colors.
I first encountered the camellia when I moved to Georgia. We have two camellia shrubs in our yard, and both pump out fat, lush red blossoms throughout the winter. I admire their persistent nature and beauty through the chilly months . . . and how they know when it’s time to make way for spring’s bright and tentative buds.
The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote about a popular football captain who fantasizes about a beautiful woman named Kamala he saw on a train whom he longs to meet. Instead, he is given a potted camellia plant by a female admirer whom he finds less attractive. The football captain eventually tracks down the object of his desire again – on vacation with her boyfriend. He ultimately notes the irony of longing for a Kamala that is unavailable and having a camellia in his care that he doesn’t really want:
In this desolate corner, I realized,
I was unbearably redundant, I wouldn’t fit.
I would have left immediately, but for an unfinished task.
The camellia would bloom in a few days
Only after sending it to her would I be free.1
May we enjoy the brightness and beauty that we find this time of year. And, when this season is through, may we—like the camellia blossoms—say our good-byes, let go, and make way for what is tentatively next.