Written by Amanda Wilkins


Camellia grijsii flowering in the Kosaku Sawada WinterGarden, with display label.

I gave a tour to a group of visiting botanists a couple weeks ago. These were people who dealt mainly with the natural world, but can still appreciate gardens. One of the ladies was reading a Camellia label in the WinterGarden and exclaimed, “Hey! That’s where I’m from in Georgia!” She beamed as one of the other scientists took her photo with the beautiful pink flowers.

Visitors take a picture of the display label of Osmanthus heterophylla ‘Kaori Hime’ to remember the name of the plant they saw.




Knowing and understanding the “origin” of a particular plant or cultivar helps put the plant into the wider context of the plant kingdom and of cultivation around the world. Think about it: looking at a tree and thinking ‘it’s just a tree,’ but suddenly you see it is from a specific region in China or was a cultivar developed in a town near where your family was from? That plant has just taken on a whole new meaning to you.

One of the most important things that sets a botanical garden apart from any other garden is the presence of labels telling you what plant you are looking at. To have that, you need knowledgeable staff members who know plants, how to research them, and how to properly communicate that information to a broad audience, from laypeople to scientists.

We are fortunate at the Mobile Botanical Gardens that we have a staff who can! In the past, diligent volunteers did their best to make sure each plant was labeled with a metal tag and a label that could be seen from the path; however, this was not consistent throughout the Gardens. One of my jobs as curator of plant collections is to come back behind them, record the names in our master plant database, and then make sure the name is correct. After all of that, a newly formatted label is made.

Dissecting the flowers of Camellia grijsii to determine whether it was properly identified.

The new labels contain several pieces of information: the scientific name; the cultivar name (if it has one); a common name (if it is not a repeat of the scientific name); the plant family it is in; the accession number, which corresponds to its entry in the database; and then we’ll call it the “origin” information.

What is the “origin” of a plant? We define it many ways at the Gardens. For species that can be found in the wild, it is where they are native to. For the azaleas and Camellias, the origin is the breeder or registrar of the particular cultivar. We do this because these are significant collections at the Gardens. For other plants that are cultivars (we’ll table this term for another time), it will generally say “Garden Origin.”

Camellia sasanqua ‘Sakura’ was collected during a trip to Japan a few years ago. It was in cultivation there, but no one knows the details of its origin.

It seems every time I walk through the Gardens with visitors, the question arises: “what does ‘Garden Origin’ mean?” The long and short of it is that it comes from a garden. It is just that simple, yet here is a lot of meaning packed into that little term. Really, it means that at one point in the history of horticulture, man came along and selected it from the wild or selectively bred it for the purpose of growing it in a garden. Which garden? How long ago? Where did it come from? Who selected it? Sometimes it is easy to know if there is a lot of literature about that particular group of plants or if it is a relatively recent development; but sometimes time has shrouded the origins in mystery and we may never know. For the sake of consistency and sanity, we choose to roll all of this simply into “Garden Origin”.


Come visit us at the Gardens from Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Last entry is at 3 p.m., so come early! The Gardens are a private non-profit and rely on donations and entrance fees to survive. It is $5 for non-members, and free members and for children under 12. Join me for the monthly Walk with the Curator every second Thursday. The next walk is Thursday, January 11 at 10 a.m.

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!

Camellia fraterna hybrid 'Tiny Princess' by Kosaku Sawada 1962. Popular in Australia & New Zealand. Fragrant pink flowers fall to the ground "all face-up". Thanks to Bobby Green of Green Nuseries for info & use of photo #mobilebotanicalgardens #planthistory #mbghist1 #mbgksawada1 ...

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#photo of Kosaku Sawada at entrance to #WinterGarden today #mobilebotanicalgardens #visit our #website for a great article about him #mbgwg1 #mbgksawada1 #mbgscene ...

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Camellia japonica 'Queen Bessie' by Kosaku Sawada 1934. Cold hardy #camellia large semi-double white blooms with a hint of blush. #planthistory #mobilebotanicalgardens #mbghist1 #mbgksawada1 Once again, thanks to Bobby Green for the use of his photo! (Can you tell I'm doing some history research😉 today?) ...

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