In the nether regions of the Altadena foothills, up an easily missed trail, it's not quite opening time at Nuccio's Nurseries. The metal gates are closed, but the parking lot is full of customers, members of a hobbyist group who were allowed to start their shopping early. They buzz about the grounds as deliberately as the bees, stopping, gazing, touching, murmuring.
Whenever thoughts turn to camellias — for professional landscapers, public garden curators, hobbyists and knowledgeable amateur gardeners — the next thought is often Nuccio's. Since 1935, this Italian family has taken over a horticultural niche and made it their own on a bare hilltop purchased in 1946 by grandfather Giulio, a young cobbler who emigrated from northern Italy at the end of the 19th century. Sons Joe, now deceased, and Julius, 97 and retired, built the business from scratch after their formidable mother, Katie, fell in love with camellias. Joe's son, Julius, and Julius' sons, Tom and Jim, have taken Nuccio's to where the business is today. And that is the top.
"They are the preeminent camellia nursery in North America," says Tim Thibault, curator of Woody Collections for the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. "When I'm back at conferences on the East Coast or Canada, colleagues at other public gardens all know Nuccio's as the single greatest commercial source of camellias."
But the Nuccios don't seem to fulfill the "camellia titan" role. In jeans and T-shirts, the cousins, who are in their 60s and 70s, generally can be found waiting on customers, cheerfully giving advice, showing off specimens and loading 1- and 5-gallon containers into cars. "They are incredible, very humble," Thibault says. "If you look at their career, they've got a couple of hundred cultivar introductions. I don't care what group of plants you're working with, that gives you hall of fame status."
The Nuccios and the Huntington, which boasts a world-renowned 1,200-variety camellia collection, have a long history together, the Nuccios passing along old species and occasionally taking Huntington cuttings in return. The Huntington grows about 100 of the Nuccios' introductions, including one the cousins named for Henry Huntington.
Known for their camellias but equally influential with azalea culture, Nuccio's currently has about 600 varieties combined in its comprehensive catalog. While the Nuccios do some hybridizing — to date, 160 or so camellias and 130 azaleas — most new camellia varieties, Tom explains, are "chance seedlings" thanks to cross-pollination by those bees. It can take five or more years once a camellia seed is planted to determine whether it is worth cultivating, whether it is different enough from others on the market. (Prices in the 2015 catalog run from $12 to $37.50 per plant.)
Naming is an important part of the process. Sometimes, as in the case of the bestselling formal white Nuccio's Gem and the pink-tinged Nuccio's Pearl, they add the family name. "Our dads couldn't afford to patent them," Jim says. "When we have our name on it, it's like free advertising." Others, including this year's colossal, intense blue-red introduction, Julius Nuccio (after Tom and Jim's father), are named for family members.
What has drawn them to the camellia? "Oh, it's the whole package," Tom says. "It's a good-looking plant, even when not in bloom. The flowers are a bonus, almost."
Julius, the oldest of the three, went straight into the business after high school, working "seven days a week for I can't tell you how long." Brothers Tom and Jim tried other paths after college — Tom spent some time in a seminary — but ultimately returned to the nursery. "It's a good life, a nice cycle," says Tom, who lives in a modest house on the property. They own 80 acres, but about 6 acres form the nursery. Camellias and azaleas in various stages of growth, from seedlings to cuttings to mature, cover the grounds.
February and March are the months when camellias come into their own, although the joint starts jumping in the fall, when the tiny, sun-loving sasanqua camellias start to bloom. "The majority of our customers do not want something they can walk into Kmart and buy," Julius says. "If you want a newer variety, and, up until this year, some real oldies, you were stuck with us. No one else grew them.
"You get a following," he continues. "I waited on a young gal and her daughter Saturday. Her daughter is the fifth generation coming here."
The Nuccio cousins have six children among them, ages 32 to 52, but none, so far at least, is interested in coming into the business. And that fact strikes fear in the hearts of their devoted followers.
Do the cousins discuss what will happen when they are done?
"We should," Tom admits. "We don't. Maybe I'll just put a sign out, 'Gone fishing. By appointment only.'"