Camellias were fabulously popular in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Many varieties admired by the aristocracy and celebrities, were considered essential for chic gardens of the time. Naturally, the fashion spread to the gardens of the Gallic “Creoles” around south Louisiana. Camellias were first imported into New Orleans from France, and have been a garden staple here since antebellum days.
As a young man visiting the plantation gardens along Bayou Teche, E. A. McIlhenny developed an interest in camellias. Around 1900 he began to collect shrubs from plantations and nearby towns and transplanted them in Jungle Gardens. By 1902 he had more than one hundred varieties of camellia. Two of his better-known acquisitions included 'Vedrine', which was discovered at a gas station in the tiny rural community of Vidrine, Louisiana in Evangeline parish, where the Comte de Vidrine had sent many camellias prior to the Civil War; and 'Governor Mouton', which was found and probably developed on the grounds of that Governor’s old home site near Carencro, Louisiana in Lafayette parish.
McIlhenny constantly combed nursery catalogs and journals for other varieties of camellia to enhance his collection. By the 1930s he was importing hundreds of camellia cultivars from foreign nurseries. He was among the first growers in the United States to have success with Camellia sasanqua and Camellia reticulata, two species whose various cultivars still enjoy immense popularity in contemporary south Louisiana gardens.
In addition to increasing his collection by acquiring local and imported plants, McIlhenny also grew many thousands of camellias from seed. If after several years a particular seedling proved worthy, it was added to the Jungle Gardens collection and put on the market through the Jungle Gardens nursery catalog. Several of these “chance-seedling” varieties, such as 'Nina Avery', 'Virgin’s Blush' and 'Cabeza de Vaca' are still available and admired camellias today.