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It started with a single camellia, and Peggy Aaron remembers the exact date — Dec. 28, 1967.

Brown's Valley nurseryman Arnold Jorgenson presented her and her husband, Jerry, with "Guilio Nuccio" as a gift to their newborn son, Justin. With its deep rose-pink semi-double flowers, it is considered by many to be one of the finest cultivars of all time.

That gift would in many ways define their lives, and remains at the heart and soul of their garden. Son Justin, now an English teacher at Napa High School, got married beneath the blooms of his welcome-to-the-world gift.

That single plant joined two other old camellias thriving in a forest of redwoods and douglas fir on Mt. Veeder, just over the Mayacamas Ridge from the Sonoma Valley.

The Aarons had been married only several years when they rented a house on the mountain for their new family. A year later, they bought the property, once part of the historic Lakoya Lodge a century ago, and slowly went camellia crazy.

"Now there are 750," says Aaron, a vigorous woman of 72 who still hikes the sloping land daily, tending a vast shade garden of camellias, magnolias, azaleas, rhododendrons, citrus and 125 Japanese maples that she and Jerry have spent more than 40 years cultivating in 6 acres of forest.

Soft bark walkways, lined with rock pulled from the hillside, lead to room after room of camellias. They are bursts of candy color at a time when the landscape is otherwise asleep.

"When people are really in need of a lift, the camellia is there to do it," Aaron says. "Everything is beautiful in summer. But when it's really dark and cloudy, you've got these incredible flowers that open."

Their vast collection now includes some 250 different varieties, including Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua and Camellia reticulata. The landscape is orchestrated with early, mid and late bloomers so that there are at least some camellias in bloom 11 months out of the year.

The garden is extraordinary not only because of its abundance of blooms but because of its maturity. Many of the plants are up to 15 feet tall, like small trees.

Walking through her enchanted forest, Aaron reaches for "favorites," which tend to be, as she said with a chuckle, "whatever is blooming at the moment."

Among them are Honeymoon, with an exquisite blush pink at the base of the petal and Lucky Star, a pink garden variety. "If you want something spectacular in your garden, and it's so dependable," she says.

Many of their prizes come from Nuccio's of Altadena, one of the premier growers and hybridizers in the country. The Aarons have befriended Tom and Jim Nuccio and their cousin Julius, and every year they pull up in the Aarons' driveway in their little truck laden with 100 select camellias that the Aarons will make available for sale as a highlight of the annual Napa Valley Camellia Society Show each February.

Aaron confesses with a smile that the collecting bug is "really a disease."

"We went absolutely crazy. But the breadth and depth of the flowers is just so amazing," says Aaron, a former writing teacher and archivist who has slowed down her acquisitions to about 10 a year.

That's a good thing because the care is intense. She hand waters the entire garden, tackling a different section each day. It takes a good 90 minutes.

The bloom are smaller and less intense this year, leading to debates among fellow aficionados about whether it is the drought or the severe cold snap that toned down this year's show.

Aaron says camellias really don't need a lot of water, however, once established. They seem to thrive in her woodsy environment, where so many other heat-seeking plants would not.

They like the acidic soil of the natural fir and redwood forest.

"And the drainage is outstanding," she said of the property, a small community that includes two of her grown children and their families and a number of tenants that live in houses and cottages tucked into the trees.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.