Pioneering Australian pilots celebrated in precipitous pair of camellia plantings

One chilly afternoon in late June I was taken for a walk around the Gardens House corner of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria's Melbourne Gardens by Jenny Happell, long serving volunteer and camellia enthusiast.

It would be fair to say Jenny wanted to show me some neglect in our care of the extensive camellia collection held by the Gardens. Not only do we now have a hundred or so less than the 950 different kinds of camellia (cultivars and species) we once boasted, but many are not in great shape. The reasons for this are due to staff shortages and in some cases rather odd placement of plants, for example right next to and under giant figs. The $5 million per year uplift in our operating budget announced in May should address part of the problem.

It was a whirlwind tour, crashing through garden beds I had never explored. I saw lots of camellias and heard lots of names and stories. Not all stuck but there are two topics I want cover here, the post this week on a pair of aeronautical cultivars, the other next week on a genetic oddity.

If you head up into the Gardens through Observatory Gate, or F Gate, and wander past the western entrance to Gardens House, you walk between or beside what we call the Tunnel Bed (previously the Director's Tunnel Bed but more recently the African Tunnel Bed).

On the left, you'll see quite a few camellia cultivars, and eventually Camellia 'Nancy Bird' (below, with few flowers) and Camellia 'Margaret Davis' (following, in full bloom) next to each other. Both are derived from the species Camellia japonica so perhaps we should have the species name on there as well.

More interestingly, these two cultivars are named after the two first women to hold pilot licenses in Australia. Nicely planned and planted I note. I don't think so, says Jenny, just a coincidence. I checked our databases and 'Nancy Bird' arrived in 1998 but we only know that 'Margaret Davis' arrived before the 1990s ('Nancy Bird' was registered as a cultivar in 1952 and 'Margaret Davis' in 1961). 

Nancy Bird Walton was the first to gain her licence, at the age of 19. She was born Nancy Bird, in 1915, in rural New South Wales, and died in 2009. She is most famous for her flights with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, for which she received an OBE in 1966.

According to the NSW Camellia Research SocietyCamellia japonica 'Nancy Bird' has flowers "with large, semi-double flushed pale rose pink over white to near white at edge of petals with splashes of silvery rose". It was selected and named by Walter Hazlewood and you can see it at the top of this post and here...

Nancy Bird Walton and her husband Charles, were members of the NSW Camellia Research Society for about 20 years, and Charles registered three new camellia cultivars. The society's website notes that flowers of 'Nancy Bird' are displayed at their annual show in July every year. In Melbourne Gardens in July, our specimen had barely started while its neighbouring cultivar was in full bloom.

As to Margaret Davis, perhaps a name not as well known as Nancy Bird Walton, she was the second woman to hold a pilot's licence in Australia. She was born Margaret Reardon, in 1908, also in New South Wales, and died in 2000.

According to Camellias Australia, Davis was also a keen gardener. She published at least three books on a topic fashionable today, plants in pots for patios and balconies. Margaret Davis helped run a Flower Show in Sydney's Domain in the 1940s, modeled on London's Chelsea Flower Show and raising money for the Red Cross.

She arranged the first meeting of what was eventually called The Garden Club of Australia, becoming the first President of the NSW Garden Club, its predecessor. Davis was a powerful advocate for horticulture, suggesting the first planting of memorial avenues in Australia, encouraging the planting of trees by Royal dignitaries and establishing a fragrant garden at the Royal Blind Institute.

The cultivar named in Margaret Davis's honour is also Camellia japonica, a sport of 'Aspansia Macarthur', grown and selected by her husband Arthur Davis. The flowers are described as "except for its colour .... typical Aspasia Macarthur" and an "informal double form, cream with petals brilliantly edged with rose in the manner of the azalea Albert Elizabeth". This is what that looks like.

As with much cultivar breeding, things don't stop there. There are sports from this sport, such as 'Margaret Davis Ashley', 'Margaret Davis Picotee' and 'Margaret Davis Supreme'. There doesn't seem anywhere to go after that last one.

'Aspania Macarthur' is also parent to a few other well known Camellia japonica cultivars, such as 'Lady Loch', 'Camden Park' and 'Strawberry Blonde'.

And so these pioneering women - pilots and gardeners - sit side-by-side in Melbourne Gardens, sporting their own sports no doubt.