My name is Gene Phillips, and this is how my world began. Gene’s Camellia World essentially began in 1957 Savannah, Georgia as Gene’s Nursery. Welcome to my world!
Grandaddy, Henry Phillips, drove the first fire engine in the Savannah Fire Department. He got the job when SFD was transitioning from horse drawn fire wagons to motorized fire trucks. Most people back then had no clue how to drive an automobile, grandaddy did. He was a gentle, kind, and certainly a brave soul, a man devoted to caring for his family, church, and community. He could not have loved any job more than firefighting.
Daddy was Francis Eugene Phillips, and he wanted nothing more than to be like his wonderful father to include becoming a firefighter. He, too, began his firefighting career at Savannah Fire Department but soon moved to the Fire Department at Hunter Air Base, now Hunter Airfield. By the time daddy was 27, he had become the Fire Chief at Hunter supervising over 100 firemen. Upon retirement, Grandaddy applied to Hunter and proudly reported to his young son. Life was good for father and son and set for years of combined fulfillment.
Suddenly, the world changed. Daddy left his coveted job and beloved family for a greater cause. Like so many young men on December 7, 1941, whose lives drastically altered with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, defense of America became the priority. His new job was Landing Craft Driver for the Navy, and he drove landing crafts onto the Japanese held islands in the Pacific Theater. On one such trip, his landing craft was hit by enemy artillery. He woke up 12 days later hospitalized in the Hawaiian Islands barely clinging to life. Severely wounded, his life was forever changed. With a 100% disability coupled with chronic severe pain, his firefighting days as well as any ability to hold employment were over. His doctor’s advice, “Find something to keep your mind occupied and off your problems!”
Daddy was the first Gene in Gene’s Camellia World. With his dream of returning to his previous life dashed, he adopted his mother’s passion for gardening. My grandmother planted different plants in her garden, although her favorites were Azaleas and Camellias. This, too, became a passion for my father, and was just as the doctor prescribed! He learned to root azaleas from his mother’s plants and later camellias. He ordered books to learn more about camellias and was soon avidly grafting and perfecting his skills. I would go out to his greenhouse in the evening to find him grafting camellias in the dark. He was so precise that he could graft in the dark. My mother loved spending time with him in the greenhouse watching him excel and enjoying the blooming camellias.
I grew up in Daddy’s Camellia World and delighted in all I saw. As a small child I was the one who washed his many gallon grafting jars each year. It was my job to water and care for his camellias when his health mandated frequent stays in the Veteran’s Hospitals out of town. Camellias provided great joy and peace in my daddy’s remaining years and an unbridled passion in mine. When I was 15, he passed away. Daddy’s Camellia World became My Camellia World. His Gene’s Nursery became mine. While Gene’s Nursery continued for 46 years, my principal time was spent in the landscape industry as a designer and installer. My greatest pleasure during those years was to escape into my greenhouse to hybridize, graft, breed and propagate my camellia acquisitions. There was no greater thrill than to explore an old camellia garden in search of treasures waiting to be remembered.
It was in the winter of 2012 when I was invited to explore a garden created by a deceased camellia breeder and nurseryman. Our group cut away vines and trees to unveil its treasures. Marsha, a novice collector, had grown up loving her mother’s camellias and, like me, viewed camellias as one of the happiest memories as a child. We’re both only children who grew up relying on our animals and plants as special friends who never disappoint! Our friendship grew and we traded insights into what we wanted to accomplish in the remaining years. She had begun her dream of developing wonderful camellia gardens amongst the pines on the family farm she had recently relocated to. She wanted to learn to propagate and stock her garden. I immediately gave her 600 of my spare varieties! We were, “off to the races!!”
Change was on the horizon. In March of 2021, Gene’s Nursery in Savannah closed its doors in its original location. My obsession led to a new location. I’m on a farm 62 miles above Savannah, 62 miles below Augusta and 25 miles from Statesboro, Georgia. Marsha’s camellia gardens have expanded exponentially and so has my nursery. We both have much to do to create our individual dreams as we envision them, but we are excited about the progress we’ve made and the merging of dreams and plans which fan our common passion. We still search for lost loves as we canvas every camellia garden we have the privilege to explore. We love collecting and growing the new introductions, as well as creating our own. You just never know when you’ll find a lost or a new love if you but take the time to search!
We hope you will visit us often to share in our great passion for the most incredible flowering woody shrub, the camellia. We grow the lost loves, the new loves, and create our own loves.
Welcome to our Gene’s Camellia World!!