In 70 years of the Camellia Show, thousands of blooms of the flower have been on display, but with new varieties cropping up over the decades and more home gardeners flocking to the plants, the event is as fresh as ever.

Returning to the Bakersfield Racquet Club this Saturday and Sunday, the Camellia Show is back to award the best blooms and floral designs in a number of categories. Whether entering into the contests or just stopping by to admire the flowers, the event is free and open to the public.

"We just get camellia fever," said Libbie Stull, secretary of the Camellia Society of Kern County and one of the show's organizers, along with her sister and society president Susan Stull.

The Camellia Society of Kern County, which holds the show each year, was started by a group of people who, no surprise, loved the unique plant that grows in winter. One of those people was Tom Stull, Susan and Libbie's father, who, like other early members, passed his love of the plant onto his children. 

"Our dad said he noticed camellias blooming in the middle of winter and thought it was just a beautiful flower," said Susan Stull, adding that back then a flower in the colder months was a rare sight. 

Other early members of the Camellia Society were Amos Kleinsasser, a World War II veteran who introduced several new varieties of the flower in his lifetime; Lee and Arlene Chow, who later established a scholarship for Bakersfield College horticulture students through the society; and Edna Saunders, the wife of City Councilman Lowell Saunders, who "grew camellias like crazy," according to Libbie Stull, and who passed her love of the flower onto her daughter, Susan Cavanagh, who regularly enters the show still.

"They caught on with people," Libbie Stull said of the flowers. "Back in the '50s was the heyday for the Camellia Society ... Nowadays, people are focused on drought-friendly (plants) and don't know camellias are drought-friendly."

But the show and the society wouldn't be going on 70 years strong if the love of camellias wasn't still alive and well in Bakersfield. While there are several longtime members and those whose parents were involved, there are people rediscovering the flower every year.

"In recent years, it's caught on because people saw camellias in their yard but didn't (yet) discover how fun it was to grow them," Libbie Stull said. "What's old is new again."

While the basics of the Camellia Show have remained the same, what's changed over the years are some of the flowers themselves. The flowers those early members would have entered into shows were what are now called "Old Timers," or blooms from varieties established before 1950, but now that's just one category.

"Every category has expanded in varieties because people continue to propagate," Susan Stull said. 

As gardeners learn more about the science behind the flowers, more varieties have been cultivated, including some yellow blooms that have joined the typical red, white and pink ones. In early shows, the camellias on display would have had no scent, but some recent blooms are fragrant, so you now actually can stop and smell the camellias — at least some of them.

Camellias in the various categories will be judged by certified judges according to the camellia nomenclature book on size, color, form and condition. Camellias come in six forms (single, semi-double, anemone, peony, rose and formal double) and even more varieties, so not all look alike, but to win they'll need to meet the standards of that specific variety.

The show also has three categories for floral design, which are judged based on arranging, not growing. The camellia has to be dominant in the design, but other flowers can be used with the flower of the hour.

Winners in first, second and third places for the 21 categories will take home crystal trophies. There's also an award for best novice bloom, awarded to someone who has never won a "best" award. That winner will add his or her name to a cumulative trophy and get to keep it for the year.

The entries might all be pretty flowers, but things can get competitive and people entering their flowers can get a little intense, the sisters said.

"It's like a dog show for flowers," Susan Stull said. 

"It just makes you neurotic," Libbie Stull added. "It's so hard to get your camellias to bloom the way you want it on the day of the show."

The sisters said there are usually around 500 flowers at the show each year, in 100 to 200 varieties and from about 50 participants. Close to 200 people attend the show in total.

Anyone who has a camellia but can't identify it is encouraged to come by 9 a.m. Saturday to get help and find out in what category to enter it. 

"We'll find a place on the table for every bloom and floral arrangement," Libbie Stull said. 

Those who don't have a camellia to enter and would like to grow one for next year (or those who just want more) will also be able to buy plants at the show.

"We're bringing really nice quality (flowers), something exciting to put in your yard," Libbie Stull said. "If they see something that catches their eye, they can buy one and plant it in a shady place in their yard."

There will also be an opportunity drawing, with prizes anyone would like, whether they have a green thumb or not. In addition to plants from local nurseries, there will also be prizes like gift certificates for local restaurants. 

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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