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.