Kosaku Sawada
Photo: Kosaku Sawada - Wikimedia Commons

Located in the heart of Mobile, Alabama, the Mobile Botanical Gardens offers within its 100 acres a stunning array of plant collections.

by Sharon Asakawa

The plants are ideally suited for the southern gardener, including a one-acre site containing “rescue” camellias from heirloom gardens that originated or were introduced to the United States prior to 1920, plus about 500 newer introductions, many from the central gulf coast hybridizers.

Before meandering amongst the beckoning camellia-lined beds, I stopped at the entrance to study a photo of a short, Asian gentleman whose weather-crinkled eyes were singularly focused on pollinating camellia flowers. In Dec. 2010, the WinterGarden was dedicated in honor of this pioneering local nurseryman, Kosaku Sawada who hybridized many world-renowned varieties including Gulf Glory, Tiny Princess, White Empress, K. Sawada and Mrs. K. Sawada.

Kosaku came to America as a young man working in Texas to help establish its rice industry. After several years in Texas, he moved to Mobile where he opened Overlook Nursery in 1914 and is still owned today by his grandsons Steven and George. Initially his nursery offered citrus and pecan trees, but in 1916, Sawada traveled to San Francisco to meet and marry his wife, Nobu Yoshioka, in an arranged marriage. She came from Japan with a dowry of camellia seeds.

Soon his breeding efforts produced many popular varieties of japonicas, sasanquas and azaleas, as well as magnolias, amaryllis and other plants. He took varieties that he particularly liked and crossbred them with those that did well in Mobile.

Although known to be a quiet man, he would speak passionately about his favorite plant at camellia societies throughout the U.S. and wrote many articles on propagating them. ‘Sawada‟s Dream’ was the camellia that he had dreamed of, hoped for and aspired to create for it had everything that he wanted in a camellia (except for the strong fragrance that he had hoped to infuse). It was the color, the shape, the size, everything that matched his internal picture of perfection and he did not believe any camellia could be better. It took him 10 years to develop ‘Sawada‟s Dream’.