by Amanda Wilkins, June 2015

With the collection of Aromi azaleas coming in in the fall, we have a moment at the Gardens to reflect on our purpose and role as a botanical garden.

The role of botanical gardens is a multifaceted one. Gardens serve as islands of beauty for the soul, natural pharmacies for humans and other animals, havens for local and rare plants, and teachers of children and adults alike. They help give us a sense of time and passing of seasons.

At a time like this, we are reminded of how lucky Mobile is to have the Mobile Botanical Gardens right in its backyard to provide these resources to the community.

We are very excited to be able to conserve and display the life’s work of the late Dr. Eugene Aromi, a native Mobilian who worked on breeding evergreen and deciduous azaleas for more than 40 years. The Garden features many of Aromi’s hybrids in the collection already, but about 90 percent of his hybrids have only been seen by a handful of people. Of the about 108 cultivars of deciduous azaleas Aromi named, 25 have already been lost to the world of horticulture. So, the importance of housing this collection is critical.

Maarten van der Giessen, of van der Giessen Nursery in Semmes, AL, inherited most of Dr. Eugene Aromi’s plants when he passed away and has been looking after them for more than 10 years. He has generously agreed to donate them in the Mobile Botanical Gardens so that they could be shared with Mobile and the world in perpetuity. So, when we started our lecture series, what better way to show off this beautiful collection to the public than to have Maarten make the introductions.

When Maarten sent me the title of his Aromi lecture I laughed out loud: Pretty, Pretty Pictures. His humor wasn’t surprising, or necessarily inaccurate.

I was invited at the beginning of April by Maarten to come out to Aromi World, what he calls the section of the nursery’s property where he’s outplanted Aromi’s hybrids that were rescued from Aromi’s own backyard or Dr. Giordano’s property. It was just to get a taste of what the Mobile Botanical Gardens will be getting later in the year.

Now, I’d seen native deciduous azaleas (taxonomically in the genus Rhododendron) in bloom in the wild before and they are stunning in their own right; however, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see. The morning sun slanting through the live oaks made the flowers of Aromi’s azaleas shimmer so brightly I could see them through the woods. I was out of my seatbelt before the car even stopped. Every plant I looked at made me fall in love with plants again.

On May 28, Maarten gave an Aromi azaleas primer at the Mobile Botanical Gardens, complete with pretty pictures, for members, visitors and Aromi’s daughters and grandchildren. We are so proud to present the video of this lecture on our YouTube channel, which also serves as the inaugural video of our new monthly lecture series. I hope you enjoy the presentation and I look forward to seeing you around the garden!

– Amanda Wilkins. Collections Curator (June 2015)

Friday & Saturday, June 26th & 27th – 7:00am to 2:00pm

Great collectibles, nick-nacks, books, kitchen stuff, golf clubs, small appliances, and even a 20 hp Johnson boat motor! Just a few of the many items that have been donated for the sale!

Come out and shop! And tell your friends, neighbors, and fellow workers! Get the word out!

Thursday, June 18, 7 pm in the Botanical Center

Experiencing the botanical side of Martha’s Vineyard- Most people assume only the rich and famous vacation on the Vineyard, and they spend their time sunning themselves on the beach and enjoying fine, expensive dining.

That may be true, but there is so much more to this little 100-square-mile island off the coast of Massachusetts. What most of those people don’t know is that more than 35 percent of the island is permanently conserved and it is home to one of the most incredible collections of plants on the east coast: the Polly Hill Arboretum.

Amanda Wilkins will give you a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vineyard in a way only an almost-Islander can.

Free to members and $10 for non-members.
Reservations requested: (251) 342-0555 or email to – Subject: Martha’s Vineyard

Sunday, June 14 at 4 pm

Join Amanda Wilkins, our Curator of Collections for an afternoon walk to see what is going on in the Gardens! She’ll cover some of the history and talk about future plans, as well as talk about some of her favorite plants..

Free for members, $10 for non-members

Please meet in the Piff Courtyard outside of the Offices.

Reservations requested: (251) 342 0555 or email to – Subject: Weekend Walk June 14th

Summer Opening Hours


Effective as of Monday 18th 2015 through September 2015

Monday, Thursday and Friday – 7am to 5pm

Saturday and Sunday – 10am – 7pm


The gates to the main Gardens will be locked outside of the opening hours.

Access to the Longleaf Forest from the main Parking Plaza will remain open from dawn to dusk every day.

If you need access outside of these hours, please call the Office at (251) 342-055 to confirm.

Nature Hikes ~ Scavenger Hunts ~ Arts and Crafts

Games & Activities ~ Nature Journaling

Presented by Mobile Botanical Gardens
June 22-26, 2015

8:30 AM -3:00 PM

$175 per child

Nature Blast 2013

Transform your child’s summer with an exciting week-long adventure! Planned for rising 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, and supplementing the science standards for Alabama, this program is designed to instill a love of outdoor adventure and appreciation of nature.

This wonderful introduction to outdoor adventures and nature will cover such topics as “Bees, Butterflies and Botany”, “Reptiles and Amphibians”, and “Woodland Monsters and Fairy Houses”.

Activities include hikes on nature trails, nature scavenger hunts and daily investigations of how plants and animals interact.

Daily schedules are from 8:30 AM to 3:00 PM at the Mobile Botanical Gardens.

Participants bring bag lunches for a picnic in various fun locations. Daily snack will be provided.

Cost per child is $175 for the entire week and includes daily snacks, take-home related activities for the family and a NatureBLAST tee shirt.

Sign your child or grandchild up TODAY!

Participation is limited to 22

Paid registrations due by June 12

I hope you will get outrageously excited about this wonderful week of adventure and creative explorations!

(For questions call or email Judy Stout – Phone 973-0354-H, 401-0811-C;

by Andrew Saunders – May 2015

The large, majestic Longleaf Pine trees in our 35-acre restoration preserve are 80 to 120 years old. But the Longleaf Pine tree is only a part of the story of a Longleaf Forest. The Longleaf Forest is a giant living thing from the ground into the sky with elaborate connections between arrays of plants and animals. The Longleaf Forest is a distinct and beautiful ecosystem. As slanting sunlight is allowed onto the forest floor by the unique, high-canopy architecture of Longleaf, understory grasses and flowers abound-bird life and ground-bound critters abound.

In 2003, when MBG began systematic restoration management of our preserve, the woods were choked with hardwood thicket throughout the understory. If we had not undertaken our restoration work, the existing pine trees would have survived for decades more, but they would have no young–no regeneration. The forest we see today would convert to an Oak thicket, over time, and the entire Longleaf ecosystem would disappear.

Fire is the critical, nurturing element for the continuance of Longleaf, and fire is what we have provided in a systematic, managed regime. Periodic fire brings health and life to the Longleaf in dramatic ways. That is, the occasion of fire in a woodland is dramatic, and the resulting biodiversity and natural beauty of the woodland is dramatic.

Clearly, there are many moving parts to the introduction of fire in an urban setting such as ours. It is not commonly done. But we have established a format over years emphasizing public safety and engendering public support. Fire is primary and essential, but it does not stand alone. Forest management means selective brush-cutting, selective herbicide applications, and continuous programs for stunting the advance of invasive species.

Below is a field map of our Longleaf Forest. The designated areas are individual management areas, subject to different management strategies according to their condition. Our long-term goal is to be able to manage the entire woodland by the application of controlled fire. What fun!

Thursday, May 28, 7 pm in the Botanical Center

Pretty Pretty Pictures! Our new garden of Aromi Hybrid Native azaleas will be planted in the Fall. Maarten van der Geissen will be giving a preview of the collection and talk about why it is so special to Mobile. Dr Aromi, an ardent azalea hybridizer for over 30 years, left a fine heritage of over 100 named native azaleas, and Maarten, owner of van der Geissen Nursery in Semmes has been working with many of his seedlings since 2004. This will be a fascinating insight into the history of the Aromi Hybrids with the promise of what is to come in our new garden.

Free to members and $10 to non-members

Reservations requested – call (251) 342 0555 or email with reference to Aromi Talk in the subject line.

Many of you know that our wonderful “Garden of Excellence”, as named by the International Camellia Society, the WinterGarden, is dedicated to Kosaku Sawada. But apart from knowing that he established Overlook Nurseries here in Mobile, and admiring his beautiful camellia hybrids, few know his history.

Bill Ray has graciously given his permission to post his history of Kosaku Sawada and his family. Bill tells of K. Sawada’s birth in 1882 in Japan, through the problems of World War II as a Japanese immigrant, with a rare and fascinating view of the family life of a great plantsman, who has left a great legacy to his family and to us all on his death in 1968.

Bill has asked us to describe him just as living in Florala, and a supporter of the Mobile Botanical Gardens – but we came across this description of him, “Bill Ray is the Charles Dickens and Mark Twain of the Camellia World all rolled up into one”, and he is a long-time contributing writer to the American Camellia Journal.

He acknowledges the generous help and support of George and Carole Sawada, and other family members for memories and photos. And points out that he considers K. Sawada to be a “Plantsman”, a far higher accolade than “hybridizer” as it was edited in some printed versions.

Below is Bill’s original article. We also attach a PDF version from the old Southeastern Camellia News, published several years ago, which includes photographs furnished by the Sawada Family. Kosaku Sawada, American – an article by Bill Ray (will open in a new tab)

Kosaku Sawada, American by Bill Ray


The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the ‘St. Louis Worlds Fair of 1904’ was, by all accounts a most lavish and elaborate celebration of the exuberance of Americans and the turn of the last century. We know this today both through conventional history, but primarily through history as presented through the eyes of Hollywood and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After all, in the movies, the fair gave Judy Garland a couple of memorable songs to sing.

Forgotten today in those memories of over a century ago, are those exhibitions and displays built by other nations to advertise their presence at this most American of celebrations.

For our purposes though, we are concerned with a Mr. Mykawa who served as an official representative of the government of Japan at the fair. During the fair, Mr. Mykawa became interested in promoting a rice farming venture around Houston, Texas. After his duties at the fair were ended, Mr. Mykawa returned to Japan to recruit a group of people to help with his rice farming plans.

Mr. Mykawa returned to America with four young men to help him. Very shortly, misfortune befell the venture and Mr. Mykawa was killed in a farming accident. The rice farming venture failed shortly thereafter.

One of these four young men was Kosaku Sawada. He, along with several of his young companions operated the Alvin-Japanese Nursery in Alvin, Texas for a time. The main operation of the Alvin-Japanese Nursery was to import citrus trees and plant orchards in southeast Texas. Along with Satsuma oranges, other plants were imported, including Camellia japonica.


After a few years, it became apparent that the more active growth in the citrus industry was eastward—so K. Sawada moved to Grand Bay, Alabama. Then a move to the largest nearby city seemed appropriate. Thus in 1914, the nursery acquired some land overlooking the city of Mobile, Alabama. In 1918, all operations were moved to this new site and Overlook Nurseries was born.

The first camellias were propagated at Overlook Nurseries about 1915. As the demand for camellias was small, propagation was begun on a limited scale. Cuttings were obtained from plants in the Mobile area—plants which had been planted in the nineteenth century. As the twentieth century camellia popularity boom began, cuttings were obtained from fine varieties throughout the country.

This popularity mushroomed and during the period of 1945 to 1950 the nursery was listing three to four hundred varieties in the nursery catalog and growing up to one thousand varieties in the nursery.

In 1916, Kosaku Sawada had married Nobu Yoshioka. The future Mrs. Sawada had brought some 500 camellia seeds with her from Japan. These were planted in the Spring of 1917 and this was the first planting of seed by Overlook Nurseries. Not until 1929-30 were the blooms of the first ‘outstanding’ varieties seen. These from seeds planted in 1925. The determination of what was ‘outstanding’ was determined by K. Sawada.

Today, some are blessed with these first plants in their gardens. Plants with names like ‘Lurie’s Favorite’, ‘Queen Bessie’, ‘Mrs. K. Sawada’, ‘Imura’ and ‘K. Sawada’ are found in many an outstanding camellia garden.

What is thought to have been his crowning achievement as ‘Mr. Camellia’ came with the introduction in 1959 of ‘Sawada’s Dream’ the first camellia selected at Overlook from cross pollinated seedlings.

‘Sawada’s Dream’ was the camellia that K. Sawada had dreamed of, hoped for and aspired to create for it had everything that he wanted in a camellia (except for the strong fragrance that he had hoped to infuse). It was the color, the shape, the size, everything that matched his internal picture of perfection and he did not believe any camellia could be better. It took him 10 years to develop ‘Sawada’s Dream’

In addition to the Japonicas, K. Sawada introduced a number of sasanquas, among them, ‘Cleopatra’, ‘Brilliancy’ and ‘Gulf Glory’ .

K. Sawada was rightly known as a ‘plantsman’ for he lived plants. Azaleas, pyracantha, amaryllis, all were experimented with and new plants produced. When he found that the Japanese flowering cherry would not grow in the South because of the inadaptability of the root stock with which it had to be grafted, he finally succeeded in propagating it from cuttings and the Japanese Flowering cherry became a common and popular tree in the Southern garden.

He grew kale and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts when others only grew cabbage and turnips. He was constantly working for something new, something better.


Forgotten today are his articles for ACS yearbooks and magazines and his lectures. This normally quiet man could talk for hours about his camellias. He often said, “I wonder why everybody invites me to talk to their Club? Maybe, they want to hear my broken English and accent.” Hardly, people wanted to hear about Camellias, from one who lived, breathed and loved Camellias for so long—and had given them so many Camellias to love.

Today in the archives of the American Camellia Society at Massee Lane Gardens, there rest a number of water color paintings of camellias, painted by K. Sawada. Having no formal training as an artist, his works are all the more remarkable: in addition to the painting of the flower itself, he noted detailed descriptions of the flower as well as the leaves and plant. He also noted any other information that he had on the history of the variety.

To quote ACS historian, Forrest Latta, ‘they are unique in all the world’


The Sawada’s had four children who survived into adulthood: Tom, George, Lurie and Ben. Tom was born in 1918 and named for Thomas Jefferson, George was named for General and first President, George Washington. Ben, the youngest was born in 1930 and named for Benjamin Franklin and is today a retired Methodist minister. Nobu died shortly after giving birth to Ben and ‘Papa’ and oldest son, Tom, raised the three younger children.

George died in 1998 and Lurie in the year 2000. Tom died in September, 2004.

People in the local community sometimes asked K. Sawada why he didn’t settle on the West Coast of the United States where he could speak Japanese, read Japanese newspapers and magazines: his answer, always: if he had wanted to speak and read Japanese he would have remained in Japan. He was in America. He and his children would speak and read English. Tom, George and Ben were the most American names he could think of for his sons, names of American patriots and statesmen—for he wanted them to be AMERICAN. Lurie’s name is something of a family mystery, ‘Papa’ never shared why she was given that name.

George along with Bill Dodd and Tom Dodd, Jr. were one-half of the first horticulture class at Alabama Polytechnic Institute. After their time together at Auburn, the Dodd’s operated Dodd Nurseries for many years while the Sawada family continues to operate Overlook. Rather than competitors, the two families have remained, ‘friends in the same business’ for decades. After George Sawada’s death in 1998, the Dodd family presented a camellia named for ‘George Sawada’ at his memorial service.

The ‘present’ George Sawada, son of Tom Sawada, was very pleased that his beloved namesake uncle had been so honored by friends that he had treasured for so long.

Indeed the Sawada’s friendship with the Dodd family was not unique, K. Sawada seems to have made a habit of knowing his competitors on a first name basis. The stories are told of young people beginning small nurseries in the area being visited, unexpectedly and unannounced, by the then successful K. Sawada and being presented with specimens of Overlook plants for beginning nursery stock for their new business. Help, advice, and support were freely given.


At the beginning of WWII, this generosity was repaid wonderfully by local nurserymen. There were two ‘Japanese’ named nurseries in the Mobile area: Overlook Nurseries and Kiyono nurseries. T. Kiyono and his camellias had even been the subject of a Life magazine article in March of 1939.

Nevertheless, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, T. Kiyono’s nursery was seized and sold at auction by the government. Kiyono’s case was not helped by his being in Japan at the time of the attack.

Overlook was scheduled to be seized and sold, but the nurserymen of the surrounding area went as a group to the authorities and pled K. Sawada and his families’ case. K. Sawada was an American, there were few in that room that had not known his friendship and generosity. There was a heated, indeed, a passionate discussion with the authorities. The local nurserymen argued that K. Sawada was one of THEM—one of their OWN.

The Sawada family was allowed to keep Overlook.

Local legend has it that the pleasant, soft-spoken, man of few words, K. Sawada was moved to tears by the actions and love of his friends, his ‘competitors’ and their families.

Indeed, son Tom was in the US Army when war broke out. He was asked to be a undercover operative. He responded that he would do anything he could to serve his country, but were they aware he did not speak Japanese?

The idea was dropped and though Tom did know some words and phrases, he never learned to speak Japanese, fluently.

Son George suffered from asthma and was ineligible for overseas military service, he was, however, active in the Coast Guard and in defense work at home.

April 15, 2008 marks 40 years since the death of Kosaku Sawada, ‘Mr. Camellia’. Born October 21, 1882 in Osaka, Japan, he, by his own design and determination, became as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie…….and Camellias.

So today, amid talk of politically correct ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘maintaining ethnic heritage’ let us remember a gentle man and his family who have given us so much beauty to enjoy and who proudly became Americans to do so.

These are some photos of Kosaku Sawada from Bill Ray’s article, and of some of his named camellias that have been posted on our Instagram account.

Click on the photo to view as a slide show with larger photos and full captions.
Follow @mobilebotanicalgardens on Instagram and see more photos!