Find out how the master gardener has encouraged the historical blooms to thrive for nearly a half century
Camellia season has commenced at Middleton Place, with some 10,000 plants joining in a pink, red, and white party that continues straight through March. Reigning over the festivities is “King of Camellias” Sidney Charles Frazier. As vice president of horticulture, he’s responsible for the oldest landscaped gardens in America, and within them, one of the first camellias planted outdoors in the country. Heavy as the crown sounds, Frazier is a man of great expertise—he’s spent nearly 50 years working in this historic garden—not to mention great faith.
CM: When you arrived for a summer job in 1974, what was your first impression of Middleton Place?
SCF: I immediately fell in love. I’d never realized a garden of this magnitude was in Charleston or even in the United States. I gave up all my sports so that I could work here during the summers in high school. I learned that the garden was built by enslaved Africans—it became famous for their work—and I wanted to be part of maintaining that.
CM: Did you develop an expertise in camellias out of necessity—because you had very old and rare plants to maintain?
SCF: No, I truly have such a feeling for camellias; I can’t explain it. For me, they’re the most interesting plants in the garden. They make this place come alive at a time of year when nothing else is blooming; no other plants can handle our winter the way they do.
CM: How did you earn the nickname “King of Camellias”?
SCF: More than anything, for the work that I’ve done with the “Reine des Fleurs.” French explorer André Michaux brought four of these camellias to Middleton in 1786. One is still here. After it received a lot of damage in Hurricane Hugo, I realized I had to try to grow more. This variety is very difficult to propagate, and I failed over and over. Finally, in 1997, I attempted the oldest method of reproduction used in China: air-layering. It worked! We’ve been able to replace one of the three lost camellias. Before I retire, I want to have two more growing where Michaux’s originals once did.
CM: How much time do you actually get to spend in the gardens?
SCF: I walk them three or four times a day, always changing my route. You’d be amazed at what you can see in the same garden by going in a different direction or at a different time—bugs eat at various times of day, for example. But I also take walks without looking for work, choosing a part of the garden based on how I feel—whether I need crisp lines or soft, informal curves. Yes, I am responsible for this, but I still enjoy it.
CM: What’s your home garden like?
SCF: My yard is presentable; it’ll evolve when I retire. Full Faith Ministries is turning six acres on John’s Island into a community park, SweetGrass, and that’s keeping me busy. One side is open—people can come and sit or read a book—and we’re working on adding a playground. We want to make our community a place where it feels good to live.
Born: James Island
Lives: On John’s Island with wife, Debra, with whom he shares five children and five grandchildren
Education: Associate’s degree in horticulture from Trident Technical College; bachelor’s in theology and doctor of divinity from International Seminary
On Sundays: Find him serving as pastor for Full Faith Ministries on John’s Island, which he founded in 2009.
On the Calendar: Check charlestonmag.com for details on camellia walks, workshops, and February 2023’s second annual Cocktails and Camellias.