TROY Trustee teaches about camellias during annual Woodham Memorial Lecture

Did you know that tea is derived from camellias, or that camellias are nocturnal and only bloom in the winter?

Did you know that tea is derived from camellias, or that camellias are nocturnal and only bloom in the winter?

Troy University Trustee and Mobile-based lawyer Forrest Latta educated and entertained attendees of the 2024 Woodham Memorial Lecture at the Dothan Campus with the history surrounding Alabama’s State Flower, the camellia.

Latta’s lecture, “Dothan’s Rich Camellia History,” featured horticulture, community organizing, botany and the culture that flourished in the post-World War II years. The Camellia japonica has deep roots in the Dothan area that began during World War II when America’s civilian population was confined mostly to home. For many, the war years were a time of reconnecting with their gardens. 

One product of Dothan’s post-WW2 era was the creation of a local camellia society in 1947 by the city’s leading citizens that led to a “camellia fever.” Many of the gardens that were grown in the years that followed remain intact and have been passed down to new owners. Meanwhile, Dothan’s rich gardening culture produced many national camellia experts as well as famous varieties that are still grown in gardens worldwide. The heritage of the camellia can still be seen in the Wiregrass region today.

A native of Dothan, Latta said despite growing up around the flower, he didn’t take an interest in them until living in Mobile and noticing the vibrant bushes that bloomed in the winter when everything else was dead.

“The more I began to learn about them, the more interested I got,” he said. “Most flowers bloom in the growing season, but these bloom during the dormant season, and they’re also nocturnal bloomers, meaning they only bloom at night. They’re fascinating to learn about and to grow.”

Faculty and staff of the Library and College of Arts and Sciences stand with Latta after his lecture.
L-R: Dr. Chris Shaffer, Dr. Kerry Palmer, Dr. Marty Olliff, Latta, Dr. Kirk Davis and Dr. Steven Taylor

Another little-known fact about camellias Latta revealed is that tea comes from crushed camellia leaves—white tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, dark tea (which includes pu-erh tea) and black tea are all harvested from one of two major varieties grown today, Camellia sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica

At the request of Dr. Bill Barrick, director of Bellingrath Gardens, Latta authored “Camellia Garden Field Guide” that was published in 2015.

“He needed a book for the gift shop and asked if I’d write one,” he said. “We set a goal of $15, so I went out and wrote him a $15 book on how to grow camellias.”

While his personal favorite is the Camellia herme, a variety that originated in Japan around 200 years ago, Latta encouraged beginner enthusiasts to start with whichever variety their local nursery carries.

“The more you learn about it, the more you’ll know what you want to buy, but you have to start somewhere and I say start with the easiest thing you can find,” he said. “It takes a long time to root camellias, so the easiest thing you can do is go to your local nursey and start there. They give good advice on how to grow them, too.”

A 1980 TROY graduate, Latta went on to graduate from Samford University’s Cumberland Law School in 1983 and has practiced law in Mobile for 40 years. He was appointed as a Trustee in 2005 and has served on the Board since.

“The role of a trustee is interesting. Technically, you represent the owners of the University, and that’s all the people of Alabama that pay taxes, especially the ones in my part of the state,” he said. “It’s great to get a behind-the scenes view of the University. Everyone knows about the success of TROY and the great leadership of Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., so it’s a special privilege to be here today and see it all in action.”

Latta also serves as Immediate Past President of the Mobile Bar Association and is a member of the Alabama Board of Bar Examiners, as well as the Alabama Supreme Court Standing Committee on Rules of Evidence. Prior to his career in law, he previously was a radio broadcaster in several cities, winning two Associated Press awards.