This article, which appeared in Jan/Feb issue of The South Carolina Nurseryman (p. 4-5), was cowritten with Mary Ridgeway, Director of Kalmia Gardens of Coker College in Hartsville, SC. Since 1935 Kalmia Gardens has been open to the public free of charge from dawn until dusk, every day of the year.
In this issue we spotlight Camellia japonica ‘Lois Coker’, which was suggested by Mary Ridgeway, Director of Kalmia Gardens of Coker College in Hartsville. It wasn’t the text in her July 17, 2014 email that bowled me over, but the attached photograph. I was immediately smitten by this perfectly sculpted flower.
Since the early 1980s Lois Coker Japanese camellia has accentuated the woodland plantings at Kalmia Gardens, which are home to several hundreds of other camellias species and cultivars. I wanted to know: who is Lois Coker and where did this cultivar come from?
I learned the background story of the ‘Lois Coker’ Japanese camellia from an email written by Ione Coker Lee:
“My father, Robert R. Coker, President of Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company, discovered the white curved petals of a seedling growing under a ‘Magnolia Flora’ camellia in their backyard. It is a creamy-white camellia and bears no resemblance to the pale pink ‘Magnolia Flora’. The petal structure is entirely different as well.
“He named it for my mother Lois Coker and had it registered at the American Camellia Society. They have a ‘Lois Coker’ growing there at Massee Lane [and in Brookgreen Gardens].
“The color is usually a creamy-white, sometimes with a hint of yellow. The small, curved petals usually are in the usual radial form, but we have seen blossoms with the petals in a perfect spiral.
“Its unique structure and color make it very special. A blossom from my plant won second place in the 2013 Southeastern Flower Show in Atlanta.”
‘Lois Coker’ was registered in 1979, and its technical description belies its sublime beauty: “Reg. No. 1576: A small to medium size, white, formal double C. japonica seedling of ‘Magnoliiflora’ (Hagoromo), mid-season flowering. Originated by Robert R. Coker, Hartville [sic], South Carolina, USA. The 10 year old seedling first flowered 1976. The flower has about 50 petals and averages 9 cm across, opens flat. Plant growth is upright, dense and rapid in rate with dark green leaves, 9.5 cm long x 4.5 cm wide.”
Nurseryman and owner of County Line Nursery in Byron, Georgia, grows ‘Lois Coker’ and includes the following description on his web site: “This flower will cause one to do a double-take. It has a distinct yellow shadow that is hard to reproduce in a photo.”
I spoke to Mr. Alden about ‘Lois Coker,’ and I sensed his fondness for this cultivar. Several times he mentioned the unique yellow sheen that’s reflected by the white petals. Alden said this midseason bloomer can be expected to mature to a height of 8 to 10 ft. It can be shaped easily with judicious pruning. Cuttings root similarly as other camellias and do not require any special treatment–only time and patience.
While ‘Lois Coker’ is still winning awards at American Camellia Society shows (5 during the 2012-2013 season), it’s time that this southern born-and-raised cultivar, which was the result of a happenstance discovery, goes mainstream and finds a home in southern landscapes. Some of us need the head-turning, jaw-dropping, take-me-to-my-happy-place flowers of ‘Lois Coker’ to help us cope with the dreary short days of winter.
 American Camellia Yearbook 2013, American Camellia Society, 100 Massee Lane, Fort Valley, Ga.
Bob Polomski © 2016
After its publication, I received this email from Ms. Lee:
Sent: Friday, January 02, 2015 9:19 AM
Dear Bob: I had a call from Ryan Gainey this week telling me he had a copy of 1976 American Camelia Society bulletin in which the ‘Lois Coker’ was introduced. There is more information about its cultivation which would be of interest for your article. Apparently it took 10 years to grow from seed. Ryan Gainey is a prominent plantsman and native of Hartsville also (and a Clemson graduate). You might want to get in touch with him if you still have time before article is published. Happy New Year! Ione