Finding Respite Among the Camellias
By Isabel Carmichael
(03-13-10) Friday night at the benefit preview of the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons’ garden fair, the alliance will honor James Jeffrey, who became a member in the early 1990s, about five years after it was founded. The preview, which will feature wine and things to nibble on as people shop for plants, will take place at the Bridgehampton Historical Society grounds from 6 to 8 p.m. The fair will be at the same place on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tickets to the preview cost $50.
Mr. Jeffrey is being honored not only for his credentials as a plantsman and gardener, but also for all the work he has done for the alliance and “for plant lovers everywhere,” according to an alliance e-mail. One of the goals of the group is to provide members with an extensive way to exchange information and knowledge about gardening, to which end it provides a monthly newsletter, lectures, study round tables, workshops, panel discussions, garden tours, and trips to unusual gardens.
“From the time I was able to crawl, practically, I had my own garden,” said Mr. Jeffrey, who bought his house in East Hampton in 1970 and moved here year round when he retired in 1995. His first garden was in Louisiana, where he was born to parents who owned sugar plantations and were also big gardeners. “My mother grew dahlias and would divide them and replant. What was left over she would throw away. I would take that and plant it and some would come up. I called them taytahs and would give the blossoms to the neighbors,” he said.
Gardening was in his blood. He started taking camellia cuttings in his teens in Louisiana. Once he was here, “I bought plants and propagated them for cuttings. Eventually the greenhouse was bursting so I planted them in the yard and they grew. Camellias (Japonica) are a hardier species than people realize,” he added.
One of the things Mr. Jeffrey did with the alliance was to start a camellia subgroup that now has 35 members. (The alliance itself has 600 members on the North and South Forks and Shelter Island.) One member apparently comes all the way from Westbury and is so happy to be able to talk with other camellia lovers.
Mr. Jeffrey also used to chair the alliance’s informal round-table group, at which attendees engage in informal study and discussion of various horticultural subjects.
Of course Mr. Jeffrey’s charming garden, which sits on a half-acre that seems much larger, includes many camellias, as well as magnolias, weeping cherry trees, peonies, and other spring bulbs. He has a small greenhouse, and Buff Orpington chickens, who have their own quarters next to the greenhouse. Because of a dispute with a neighbor, Mr. Jeffrey had to unload his rooster, which he did, along with the first batch of hens, to a farmers market on Spring Close Highway.
Mr. Jeffrey’s day job before he retired was as an Episcopal priest. For most of his ministry he worked in hospitals as a chaplain and supervisor for clinical pastoral education, both at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and at St. Luke’s Roosevelt, where he was also in charge of the AIDS ministry.
“This was my salvation,” he said. “After dealing with people dying all week, this garden became my respite. When the alliance was formed, that was an immediate connection I could make with horticulturalists out here.”
In addition to being the president of the Long Island Camellia Society, Mr. Jeffrey is the vice president and East Coast representative of the International Delphinium Society, based in England.
“The thing that I really am happiest about doing with the alliance,” he said, “was introducing horticulture to the schools,” which he started doing in 1998. “We would do specific things like forcing amaryllis, hyacinth, and narcissus, planting bulbs; we’d do winter greens — holly and conifers — I’d have the children identify the different kinds. In the spring we would have them start seeds behind the Bridgehampton School.”
Mr. Jeffrey did a similar thing for about five years with the East Gate Garden Club for the elderly disabled at the East Hampton Town Senior Citizens Center and in Montauk. “Once we did a workshop on herbs and we were passing around a lemon verbena plant. We put the plant in the hands of a very disabled woman, who held it up to her nose and wouldn’t let it go. . . .”
He was the alliance president for three years and its treasurer for one. Mr. Jeffrey also was the driving force behind the Paul Karish Scholarship Program, named after a founding member of the alliance who died in 1991, which provides scholarship money to help promote awareness of and excellence in the art and science of horticulture.
Tomorrow Mr. Jeffrey will be awarded a lifetime membership that will entitle him to all the privileges of a premium member of the alliance.