JARS v57n2 - Nuccio's Nurseries: A Legacy of Azaleas and Camellias

Nuccio's Nurseries: A Legacy of Azaleas and Camellias
George Klump
La Crescenta, California

"'Giulio Nuccio', midseason, coral rose, very large, semi-double flowers with inner petals fluted in 'rabbit-ear' effect. Unusual depth and substance. Vigorous, upright growth. Only variety to win the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Merit, it may well be the world's greatest camellia. Variegated, fringed forms are available."

So begins the description of this beautiful plant in the Sunset Western Garden Book of June 1978 on pages 210-211 of its sixteenth printing. However, lest we assume that the internationally known Nuccio's Nurseries does only this, let us take a look at the overall enterprise, how it got started and what it does now.

Its location is hardly happenstance. California has had a large Italian population for decades. This may be traced up into the lower San Joaquin Valley and over into the coastal range where there are many Italian farms of size and in some cases towns built around the Italian farmers. Everything from cattle and horse ranches to truck farms spreading out over the valley can be found. Indeed, the Italian heritage traces still further up the coast of California into San Francisco where the famous Fisherman's Wharf got its start through Italian fishermen who still work from there today. Ghirardelli Square is nestled close by and the famous chocolate factory, Ghirardelli Chocolate, comes from this area. Further up in the upper San Joaquin Valley one finds grape vineyards and wineries directly traceable to these people.

Let us turn back the clock just a few decades and focus on one of these families, the Nuccio family. When Julius Nuccio, the son of Giulio and Katie Nuccio, was only 11 years old, he decided that the camellia was without any question the most beautiful flower he had ever seen and this was what he wanted to do when he grew up - grow camellias. That said, it was very natural that he should begin growing them in his backyard in Alhambra, California, more or less as an avocation. He and his older brother, Joseph Nuccio, worked in a glass factory at the time, but, nevertheless, their work with flowers became a fairly consuming project with them and in 1935 the two brothers obtained a nursery license from the State of California. After that all plants were fair game and they began to grow and sell all sorts of botanical wonders. There was no initial specialization per se in camellias or in azaleas for which they were later to become internationally recognized.

World War II came on suddenly and California was hard hit in many ways. It was not until the end of that conflict, about 1946 to be more precise, that Giulio was persuaded to purchase some land in what is now called Altadena, a community which in effect sits atop Pasadena up against the San Gabriel Mountains. And the two brothers were on their way. The land parcel is about 10 acres, most of it for the plants, but some of it reserved for materials and hybridizing. Not long after the land was acquired, Julius walked over a little hill on the land and found a streambed where runoff water came down the mountain. The two years preceding this had been good as far as rainfall was concerned and the water had left its path. A little plumbing work produced a good water source, although not really quite enough for the nursery. Nevertheless, the amount which dripped through the pipe amounted to 500 gallons a day. There was also a well drilled which produced a little more water and, still later, the Lincoln Water Company brought in more which solved the water problem altogether.

The San Gabriel Valley, with Altadena perched at its far northwest end, lies east of the San Fernando Valley and the Crescenta Valley and is further inland from the coast to the west. It began to develop rapidly following World War II which meant more demand for water. The City of Long Beach, the second largest city in Los Angeles County as well as a port city and shipbuilding area itself lying almost directly south of the San Gabriel Valley, brought suit against all the cities and townships developing there, since they were further upstream on the water sources than Long Beach was. Rather than pay attorney's fees, Nuccio capped the well on their property and relied on the streambed and Lincoln Water.

Nuccio's Nurseries, Altadena, California Nuccio's Nurseries, east entrance
South side of Nuccio's Nurseries, Altadena, California.
Photo by George Klump
Nuccio's Nurseries, east entrance.
Photo by George Klump

Julius and his brother, Joseph, worked hard at developing the nursery. Joseph's son, also named Julius, got into the business and has been working, since about 1958. Tom, the older son of Julius and, therefore, the nephew of Joseph, began to work full-time in the business in 1972 after finishing college at the University of Santa Clara. In his early experiments he got some chance seedlings which turned out to be more successful initially than his crosses. In 1982 Tom's younger brother, Jim, also came into the nursery business. It has been a family enterprise from the beginning and continues to be.

The famous 'Giulio Nuccio' camellia referred to in the opening paragraph was developed by Julius and Joseph Nuccio and named after their father. 'Katherine Nuccio' was actually the first one they developed. They named it after Giulio's wife who was known as Katie. It was a dark pink, medium size, formal double flower. Grandma Katie preferred 'Drama Girl' which was a larger camellia. Since Grandma Katie was a woman of stature, the Nuccio's later decided to name a large flower seedling 'Katie' in her honor.

When they first started out in the nursery business in 1935, Julius and Joseph were very careful with plant labels. Every effort was made to keep things in order so that there would be no confusion as to which plant was which. This proclivity for neatness also carried over to the seeds themselves. Since each plant was labeled individually, should it not follow that all seeds be labeled individually as well? The two brothers developed a system of keeping all seeds from each plant separately labeled and carefully set out in wooden crates with peat moss, the type of wooden crates all Southern Californians knew in those days to contain oranges and peaches. This system worked splendidly for many years. One day, James Nuccio, Tom's younger brother, was born. Now it is almost universal that little boys want to go outside to help daddy with whatever he may be doing. Jimmy was no different. When he was about 3 years old, the urge to go outside and help daddy and Uncle Joseph overcame him. Julius and Joseph were working together on some plants, when they heard something behind them. Turning around they found Jimmy standing there with their carefully placed plant labels in his hands. The system of labeling the plants, heretofore a smoothly operating affair, never quite fully recovered from that incident and they have been content since then merely to keep the seeds in the proper categories disregarding the particular plant in the category from which the seeds originally came.

Most of the plant stock in Nuccio's Nurseries is openly pollinated. They have found in practice that this is about as effective a way as any. This is not to say that they do not hand pollinate certain plants for particular reasons: they do, of course. There are some plants tucked away in the greenhouses which have special traits, say, one is a hot red. However, the plant itself may not be all that good and would more than likely not be commercially viable. But the plant is retained, not thrown away, as there may be a time, when hand pollination with another plant may result in better foliage and growth characteristics and the excellent red.

C. 'Adolphe Audusson' C. 'Daikagura'
Camellia japonica 'Adolphe Audusson', variegated.
Photo by George Klump
Camellia japonica 'Daikagura'
Photo by George Klump
C. 'Nuccio's Bella Rossa'
Camellia japonica 'Nuccio's Bella Rossa', Nuccio's only patented camellia.
Photo by George Klump

One of the mysteries of camellias is the fact that certain of them have random yellow blotches on some leaves. A plant may be quite large and have just a handful of leaves with this condition. These yellow blotches are caused by a harmless virus. Just when and how the virus got into the camellias is anyone's guess. Plants in China which may have a 3,000-year history are found with this same virus and to-date no botanist we've heard of has offered a factual cause or reason for this. Nevertheless, because of the virus, the flowers the camellia produces are a marvelous mixture of random bi-color. If the basic flower is pink or red and since the effect of the virus is white, one will find streaks or blotches of white all through the flower. Naturally, on white camellias which contain a virus this will not show up on the flower. One remarkable example of this is the 'Shibori Egao' camellia. A showpiece plant by itself, it is made the more so by pink flowers shot through with streaks or blotches of white which patterns are singular to any given flower.

Azaleas were a botanical interest concomitant with camellias, and Julius and Joseph became interested in this popular sub-group of rhododendrons which appears to be more easily grown in different cultures than either the traditional broadleaf elepidote rhododendron or the camellia. This interest began in the early days of the nursery enterprise, even before the Altadena location was purchased where they are now. As a matter of fact their current catalogue lists the small-leaf Kurume azalea, an azalea known for its massive display of flowers which nearly cover the entire bush, the Gold Cup, Pericat, Southern Indica 1 , Rutherford, Belgian Indica 2 , Hirado hybrids and various miscellaneous hybrids generally available to everyone. In addition to these listed in the catalogue are their Belgian, Carnival, Kurume, Satsuki and miscellaneous hybrids, some 254 hybrids in all just in these categories.

Beyond this are the Satsuki azaleas themselves, beautiful, low growing, usually a semi-dwarf plant almost always bushy, lending itself to bonsai treatment and frequently displaying more than one color combination on an individual plant. These are plants which Nuccio's Nurseries have brought directly from Japan, plants which have been used for centuries in Japanese landscaping and which are characteristic of their immaculately trimmed gardens. Satsuki means May and, consequently, the plants tend to bloom in May and June with a few blooming even into July. As with some of the other conventional varieties though, the Satsuki azaleas have been known to bloom at other times of the year in Southern California's subtropical climate and frequently do. September through November can be one of those times, when one may see blooms on the plants. It is also not uncommon to see flowers on some azaleas during the winter months. And this in no way affects the quality or quantity of blooms normally seen in May-June.

As if this were not enough, Satsuki azaleas have a capacity for multiple colors on the same plant as previously alluded to. The lovely 'Eikan', usually a white flower, can be found with stripes - stripes of blush pink and salmon pink, sometimes with flowers of solid coral pink. The flowers are always large and round in shape on this vigorous plant. 'Shukufuku'* is another Satsuki of similar behavior (also in the writer's garden). Blooms are often variegated with solid salmon pink flowers scattered among white ones. 'Gion Komachi'* is a white flower with purple stripes, but also with many variations of orchid, sometimes with a white center and purple around the edges. 'Minato'* (again in the writer's garden) has a white center which moves gradually into an orchid color on the edge. 'Tama-no-hada #2'* is a marvelous sport of 'Tama-no-hada'* having very large single petals which are usually pink with white edges and red spots in the throat of the flower. Sometimes one finds blooms of solid coral pink. 'Haru-nosono #3'*, a sport from 'Haru-no-sono'* which itself is a sport of 'Issho-no-haru'* which in turn is a sport of 'Yamato-nohikari'*(!), often displays a solid orchid rose and a gorgeous deep pink of unusual color saturation. As with its ultimate parent, the 'Yamato-no-hikari'*, the 'Haru-no-sono'* presents its flowers later in the season, that is, from the middle of June through July as do both of its sports, 'Haru-no-sono #2'* and 'Haru-no-sono #3'*.

In addition to the Satsuki azaleas there are Satsuki hybrids. Nuccio's current catalogue has 17 of these listed, but, as with other members of the Nuccio stock, there are many others being developed which are not yet ready for market nor are they necessarily from Satsuki azaleas. These are not listed.

Through hybridizing over the years the Nuccio family has developed a number of camellias and azaleas which exceeds 200 plants. Most plant enthusiasts have long ago learned that the same plant is often sold under different names by different nurseries. Sometimes this is true even within the same general region. To avoid such controversies Nuccio's Nurseries, when it has a new plant to offer, solves the matter by calling the plant 'Nuccio's Wild Moon'* or 'Nuccio's Purple Dragon'*. Their name preceding the plant name indicates that they have done the work on this plant and that it is a product of their hybridizing efforts. Although Nuccio's Nurseries have not registered the names of the plants they have introduced, they have made "Nuccio's" the first word of the name of each of their hybrids in order to avoid confusion with plants from other sources.

Unlike camellias, azaleas tend not to set seed. Some Satsukis are an exception to this and do set seed. There are also Kurume azaleas which do, too. But most others tend not to set seed and, if they are to be pollinated at all, must be hand pollinated. Occasionally, bees will do the work, but more often not.

Of the 254 different azaleas in the usual categories listed in Nuccio's catalogue for this year, 104 are hybrids which have come from the Nuccio greenhouses. And of those 104 hybrids at least 17 are Satsuki hybrids of various kinds.

R. 'Yugetsu #2', a Satsuki azalea R. 'Red Poppy'
'Yugetsu #2'*, a Satsuki azalea.
Photo by George Klump
'Red Poppy'*, a Belgian Indica azalea, in the author's garden.
Photo by George Klump
R. 'Shukufuku' R. 'Nuccio's Fragrant Lavender'
'Shukufuku'*, a Satsuki azalea.
Photo by George Klump
'Nuccio's Fragrant Lavender'* with fragrant lavender-tipped flowers in the author's garden.
Photo by George Klump
R. 'Shugetsu' R. 'Ai-no-tsuki'
'Shugetsu'*, a Satsuki azalea.
Photo by George Klump
'Ai-no-tsuki'*, a Satsuki azalea.
Photo by George Klump

With that many varieties being introduced someone is bound to ask the question of how new names are chosen, names which do not confuse the field further by duplication. Tom Nuccio responded to this by saying that, first, they are well aware of the many names for the myriad number of plants in the field, that some are registered and one must be careful not to infringe upon those plant names already commonly in use. They had just come up with a new camellia and were about to name it Bright Eyes, when it was discovered that the name was already in use in New Zealand. One day one of the boys was walking around in the yard humming "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Right then it was decided that the new name would be 'Sunny Side'. This plant can be found in the catalogue under the Camellia japonica category.

Nuccio's Nurseries supply many azaleas and camellias and occasionally rhododendrons and other plants for landscaping. Many professional landscape architects require their plants for important projects. St. Francis High School in La Cañada Flintridge came to them for a landscaping plan involving many camellias. Tom asked what variety and type the high school would wish to have and the response was that it should be his choice. However, one condition was placed on that: NO large flowers. Question: Why not? Answer: So that the boys cannot pull off the large buds for "bud fights"! Tom even had a lady come in to purchase the camellia 'Elegans Champagne' which is a sport of 'Elegans Splendor'. As he began explaining to the woman the planting requirements, it turned out that this was not her purpose. This particular camellia plant has leaves which are rather holly-like in shape. It seems that the lady only wanted the plant for its leaves so that she might use them as decoration for chocolate cakes at Christmas time.

Landscape architects know that Nuccio's Nurseries can supply them with just about any viable azalea or camellia they could wish for in all kinds of settings and that these would be azaleas and camellias of high quality with strong and well developed root stock. Currently the famous Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge in the Crescenta Valley just a couple of miles west of Nuccio's is undertaking a new project in landscaping which will require the Camellia sinensis, the species from which tea comes. This is a result of a trip by Descanso's executive director to the National Tea Research Institute of Vietnam which is close to Vinh Yen. Descanso Gardens are planning a miniature tea plantation there with over 100 tea plants on a north-facing slope. And they are including two forms of the Camellia sinensis along with the Camellia irrawadiensis which is related to the sinensis and is also used for tea. In the words of Richard Schulhof, the Executive Director of Descanso Gardens at that time, they will be "drawing from the camellia collection assembled by world famous Nuccio's Nurseries in Altadena."

Descanso Gardens, begun around 1937 on land purchased by the late E. Manchester Boddy specifically for camellia experimentation among other things, is internationally known as one of the finest camellia gardens anywhere. Some camellias there are nearly 65 years old and many of them are 25 to 35 feet in height. And Nuccio's Nurseries has supplied Descanso Gardens with many of these outstanding plants.

One of the landmark landscaping projects of recent times is the new Getty Museum up on the side of the Hollywood Hills in the Sepulveda Pass overlooking the Los Angeles Basin. While Bill Paylen, a member of the Southern California Chapter of the ARS and a nationally known landscaping architect, served as design consultant for the beautiful Sunken Gardens there at the Getty Museum, the azaleas - and there are many of them on the museum grounds - were purchased directly by the Getty interests from Nuccio's Nurseries. Although it requires reservations just to get in to the Getty Museum largely because of parking limitations, it is certainly worth the trouble to see these beautiful gardens which at various times of the year are nothing short of spectacular, especially when all of the azaleas are out in force.

In the original plan the azaleas were set en masse out in the center of a central reflecting pool which is fed by a lovely waterfall. Most of them were Belgian or Southern Indicas 1, 2 of various kinds which tend to bloom here in March and April and, then, spot bloom from time to time throughout the year. The intention was to keep them for 10 years and replace them with new azaleas. Bill Paylen and Julius Nuccio, Joseph's son, suggested that the new azaleas be Kurume and Julius further suggested that the plants should be kept in a sculpted framework for ease of care and transplanting, when the time came. Money not being a significant object here a bulldozer was called in to level an area at the Malibu Getty Museum. A wooden frame was constructed so that the plants might be grown, shaped and pruned to fit the island of the central pond at the Sepulveda Pass Getty Museum. Nuccio's Nurseries delivered the Kurumes some two years ago, a collection of 'Snow', a white hose-in-hose, 'Appleblossom' 3 , a white single flower tipped with pink, and 'Hino-crimson', a flower of brilliant red. These are growing now at the Malibu campus in the specially constructed framework and soon will be moved to the Sunken Gardens in the Hollywood Hills campus for display in the center of the reflecting pool.

As with any nursery of this magnitude, there are, naturally, plants which are there which are not for sale, but are rather for research. One is the Japanese azalea 'Unzen-no-shiro'*, an interesting form which this writer happens to have in his garden. Unlike nearly any other azalea this one develops a single stock which rises up some 18 inches before it puts out horizontal branches. On these horizontal branches the leaves appear. In blooming season the plant is loaded with small white flowers which are usually star-shaped. As the plant grows older there sometimes appears a second stock which seems to come from the base of the original. If pruned, the plant gives the effect of a white crane standing on one leg. It is entirely possible that the 'Unzen-no-Shiro'* is a forerunner of the Kurume family. In any case it seems to be in a category by itself and the plant tends to be semi-deciduous in some climates.

Another azalea easily grown here is the 'Haru-no-hibiki'*, a Satsuki hybrid from Japan with Belgian Indica 2 characteristics and which seems to be blossoming nearly all year long. Its flowers are large, often with a white center, sometimes pinkish, with a pinkish red border. And like so many of the vigorous Satsuki azaleas, it is quite bushy with a thick foliage of an attractive green, a plant which makes no apparent effort to rise to great heights and is therefore a perfect foil to a large rock in a Japanese garden setting. This writer has one in a south-facing garden next to veranda steps where it is exposed to sun much of the day. For all that it seems none the worse for wear.

With all of the foregoing it is apparent that Nuccio's Nurseries should have fair connections with Japan. Not surprisingly they do. Julius Nuccio, Tom's father, went there first about 1977. This led to further contacts. Tom himself went there as long as 15 years ago and thinks that, between them all, they may have made more than 15 trips to Japan. One of their friends there is Satoshi Kimura. Mr. Kimura mounts a camellia show every year in what is called the Atagawa Tropical and Alligator Garden. There are glass houses which are thermally heated and, naturally, the alligators swim around outside of the glass houses. This complex is about 2 hours below Tokyo on the Izu peninsula close to Ito and Atami. Better yet is the fact that Oshima Island is about a 60-minute boat trip off the coast there. The significance of that statement is that Oshima Island is a good source for wild camellias, the kind which have appeared in Japanese paintings for centuries. From there Mr. Kimura and others have selected some of the best of the wild camellias, the single japonica , which are featured at Nuccio's Nurseries. Out of this have come indirect contacts with China where camellias and rhododendrons are also native.

Sixty-seven years and hard work have placed this nursery at the forefront of its specialty - camellias and azaleas. Nuccio's Nurseries are equipped to ship plants anywhere. Camellia japonica is durable usually to about five degrees above zero (5°F, -15°C) without real protection. The older more established plants survive better, of course, but those with double flowers can freeze buds at that temperature. Generally speaking they take anywhere from 30% to 70% sun. Less than 30% will not allow them to set flower, while more than 70% sun runs the chance of burning the plant. If the climate is one of some humidity, sun and shade can be somewhat relative. Hot, dry climates would be problematic at best. The Camellia sasanqua is sun tolerant and an established plant will take temperatures down to about zero (0°F, -18°C). Satsuki's which are reasonably well established will take cold temperatures in the way that most azaleas do. Those wishing to experiment with these very different azaleas and camellias in their gardens may order directly from Nuccio's Nurseries.

* Name is unregistered.

1 Southern Indica: Although the International Rhododendron Register uses the term "Southern Indian," the term "Southern Indica" is the common term used in Southern California and elsewhere to refer to this group of plants.

2 Belgian Indica: Although the International Rhododendron Register uses the term "Belgian Indian," the term "Belgian Indica" is the common term used in Southern California and elsewhere to refer to this group of plants.

3 'Appleblossom': A synonym of 'Ho-o'. The name used by Nuccio's is 'Apple Blossom'.

George Klump is president and a longtime member of the Southern California Chapter. Some of the background material for the article was obtained through direct consultation with Tom Nuccio.