"I went into the room, a sea of pinks and whites. It was such a wonderful surprise. It almost took my breath away," she said.
Soon she was chatting with members, joined up, and eventually served as president from 2005 to 2007.
This year she's helping the San Francisco Peninsula Camellia Society celebrate its 50th anniversary, encouraging newcomers to view more than 1,000 blooms — including miniatures, ruffled, tulip-shaped, peony-like, formal or symmetrical — at the Camellia Flower Show and Plant Sale on Feb. 12 and 13.
They can also visually experience the range of colors — white, pink, magenta, red — and patterns: variegated, striped or tinged with color on the edge of the petal.
As a landscape designer who runs Studio 74 Landscape Planning and Design from her Atherton home office, Kupperman is constantly on the lookout for color for her clients.
Camellias can provide nearly year-round color, she said, for example, combining japonica that bloom from late January through April with sasanquas such as Stars'N'Stripes that blossom from late summer through the new year.
Shade-loving camellias tend to thrive in a northern exposure, often planted near walls or under trees, Kupperman said.
"Camellias are a very tough plant, and very long-lived," she said, pointing to 30-year-old small trees that were blooming in mid January in front of the old Roth Building in Palo Alto. The building is the site for the proposed Palo Alto History Museum, and the camellias have been ignored for years.
But they really require little or no maintenance, once established, Kupperman assured. That's part of what makes them such a natural pairing with native plants.
"Some people take them out because they fear they're water suckers," she said, "but they can tolerate some dryness and live for hundreds of years."
They pair well with shade-loving natives, such as native iris and ginger, Oxalis, Arctostaphylos and Atrium, she said.
And they do last a long time.
"Think about something alive and thriving, and whether what you're replacing it with will perform as well in the long run," she said.
Through its 50 years, the camellia society has both donated camellias to public gardens and rescued historical collections. In 2005, when founding member Marjorie O'Malley died, the group contacted the new Woodside estate owner, Bill Davidow. Although he wasn't interested in keeping O'Malley's camellias, he did agree to pay to dig them up and move them, Kupperman said. Members of the camellia society worked together to identify the plants and coordinated the moving and transplanting.
Those plants are now established at Stanford University, near Memorial Church, and at the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. No surprise that Stanford's blooms, called "Yuletide," are Cardinal red.
Other key projects are in Redwood City — the Community Activities Building, the Library, the Red Morton building — and the United States Geological Survey in Menlo Park. Kupperman said the camellias planted at Holbrook-Palmer Park in Atherton are not doing as well.
Although camellias are hardy plants, they are susceptible to petal blight, where the blossoms turn brown at the center. To counter that, Kupperman advised keeping the area around the plant clean, picking up spent flowers and putting down clean mulch. As the mulch breaks down it slowly fertilizes the plants, she said. Pruning should take place when flowering is finished, before new buds come out, she added.
At her Atherton home, Kupperman keeps many of her camellias in containers, which she waters by hand.
Kupperman said joining the camellia society gave her access to educational programs where members meet monthly to share information on growing, showing, caring for, pruning and creating new varieties of camellias.
"The people are really wonderful to get to know. Many are interested in many different kinds of plants," she said, including magnolias, a common companion plant to camellias.
"In the scheme of things it's a frivolous activity, but it's very uplifting. All the cares that you have and tragic aspects of the world are easily forgotten," Kupperman said.
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What: Camellia Flower Show & Plant Sale
When: Saturday, Feb. 12, show noon to 4 p.m., sale 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 13, show and sale 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Community Activities Building, 1400 Roosevelt Ave., Redwood City
Workshop: "Rejuvenating Neglected Camellias: Pruning, Potting, Planting" by Gene Fleet, Sunday, 1 to 2 p.m.
Info: Linda Kancev at 650-574-1220
What: The Camellias at Gamble Garden with Barbara Tuffli
When: Thursday, March 3, 2 to 4 p.m.
Where: Gamble Garden, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto
Cost: $40 for nonmembers, $30 for members
Info: 650-329-1356 or www.gamblegarden.org
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