Thousands of camellias on display in Florida

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PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - It is a tricky thing keeping three prized camellia blooms fresh during a cross-country plane ride, but Don Bergamini knows just how to pull it off.

Bergamini, from Martinez, Calif., was among the hundreds of camellia growers vying for top prizes on Saturday at The American Camellia Society's annual convention and show. He is also the society's president.

"They were not refrigerated for about 11 hours because of a flight delay," Bergamini said. Despite the trip, he still managed to have one his blooms in the running for best in show.

More than 2,000 camellia blooms competed for dozens of awards. The white, pink, red and variegated blooms covered tables in two rooms and created a dazzling display.

Among other criteria, the blooms were judged on their freshness, size and color based on standards for their varieties. The winter-blooming flowers range from the size of a Ping-Pong ball to the size of a dinner plate.

"Some people ask, `What's my favorite flower?' and I say it is the one that is in bloom. If you pushed me though I would say it is the Frank Houser Variegated," said Dr. Bradford King, a California grower and show judge who also serves as editor of the society's journal and yearbook. King's favorite flower is about the size of a softball with soft pink and white coloration and large petals.

King said he became a camellia enthusiast after moving to California from Boston.

"I grew up in Boston where in February it is cold and dreary and nothing is in bloom. I moved to California and I saw these beautiful flowers blooming in January and February. I had to find out what they were," he said.

Howard Rhodes and his wife took several top awards. The couple has about 800 camellia bushes in their yard and two greenhouses in Tallahassee. Among his winning blooms was bright-pink camellia about the size of a soup bowl with soft, rounded petals. Rhodes grew the flower from a seedling and he could tell immediately that it would be a winner. The bloom was displayed on a blue, velvet draped table in the center of the room with a crystal bowl as a trophy.

Rhodes said he became a camellia grower because the flowers flourish in north Florida. "If I wanted to be outside in the summertime in the heat of north Florida, I suppose I could grow roses," he joked. But he said the mild winter weather in which camellias thrive is nicer for both plants and people.

The striking, mostly non-scented blooms can be found in neighborhoods throughout the South from December through February. Expert growers said the appearance of the flowers can vary greatly within small geographical regions.

Dr. Norman Vickers, secretary of the Pensacola Camellia Club, has loved the flowers from the time he was a child growing up in Mississippi. Vickers helped to coordinate Saturday's show.

"They bruise easily so people cut them and put them in a synthetic-type cotton so they won't get injured when transferred," he said. Others prefer to transport the flowers in ice chests and some poke the stems in fresh grapes as a trick to keep them fresh.

Vickers won a top prize one year for a camellia bloom that he had refrigerated for a week after cutting the bloom to save it from an expected freeze.

"I thought it was a little bit old but I'd enter it anyway and by golly it won in its category," he said.

Bergamini, the American Camellia Society president, refused to say which of the thousands of blooms most impressed him.

"There is a saying that the last one you see is always your favorite," he said laughing.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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