After the chill of the winter begins to fade, the camellia bush, the jewel of the Southern garden, prepares itself for its coming-out celebration, having waited in the shade of its protective leaves for its time to bloom.

In an otherwise drab landscape, the camellia bursts forth with color and vibrancy, while other blooming plants are left to cower in the coolness and wait for warmer days.

Middleton Place, 15 miles northwest of downtown Charleston, is home to “the most important and most interesting garden in America,” according to the Garden Club of America. It houses centuries-old camellias — red, white, pink and combinations thereof — delicately cared for, ready for the public to enjoy as the camellia “season” opens in early February.

“Beauty History: Celebrating Camellias at Middleton Place” will kick off Feb. 6-7, with special programming featuring Middleton horticulturist Sidney Frazier, who will lead a workshop on camellia propagation, care and maintenance, a reception and lecture with Max Fleming, a former director of tea horticulture research. The event will continue with guided camellia walks on the plantation grounds through March 19.

The old Carolina estate of Middleton Place dates back to 1741 when Henry Middleton acquired the property as part of a marriage dowry with his bride, Mary Williams.

Today, within the first moments of arrival on the property, visitors are whisked away to a beautiful, historic and timeless place. Ancient oaks drape moss over the dirt roadways, sheep graze on the grass on the front lawn of the house, and the reeds of the Ashley River blow in the wind from the marsh behind the gardens.

Also in 1741, Middleton had the gardens designed with a specific symmetry in mind, following the principles of Andre Le Notre, the master landscape designer behind the Palace of Versailles in France.

Le Notre was meticulous in his attention to perspective and optics and discipline to equilibrium and geometry. “It’s a classic style,” said Middleton’s director of communications, Stephen Reed. “It’s very balanced and very precise.”

People like the order, but they also like surprises, Reed said. A quick look down any garden path will reveal a statue or sculpture, which is “a pleasant departure from the order.”

Large and elegant gardens would have been considered a status symbol of the era. “Whomever had the biggest or the most, that was your sense of showmanship and power within the economy of the established world,” said Frazier, who has been with Middleton for 42 years, starting as a gardener’s helper in 1974. “It truly is a showcase.”

Reed echoed this sentiment. “They were pleasure gardens, but also a projection of power,” he said. “If you were thinking of working with them in business or government, you could see they were a stable bunch.”

In 1786, French botanist Andre Michaux introduced four camellia shrubs to the Middleton family. A gift, Frazier called it, considered exotic, since camellias were not native to the Lowcountry. Michaux’s idea was to bring plant materials here to trade for plants that he could, in turn, take back to his country, Frazier said.

One of the original four camellia plants has withstood war, fire and an earthquake and still blooms majestic near the Butterfly Lakes overlooking the Ashley River. Known as the “Reines de Fleurs,” this “Queen of the Flowers” stands tall and strong, in bold and brilliant red with splashes of white.

In the late 1860s, following the Civil War, with no financing and no one to work the grounds, the estate began to fall into a state of disrepair. But in 1915, J.J. Pringle Smith and his wife, Heningham, were given ownership of the property. When they began to stay on the property in 1925, they primarily used Middleton Place as their winter residence. J.J. Pringle Smith was the great-great-great-grandson of Henry Middleton, president of the Continental Congress.

The Smiths’ grandson, Charles Duell, considers them “pioneers in garden restoration.”

Duell, who also is president and CEO of the Middleton Place Foundation, spent a considerable amount of time with his grandparents at the plantation and at their “city house,” the Edmonston-Alston House on East Battery.

Heningham was the leader of the garden restoration, Duell said.

In one of her diaries, he said, she talked about “going down on her hands and knees, feeling for the bricks on the sides of the pathways, since it was so overgrown.”

She was “bringing back to life a garden that had been neglected for 60 years,” Duell said. “She never went in the garden without a pair of clippers.”

His grandparents absolutely fell in love with Middleton Place, Duell added. They wanted to see it get back as close to its heyday as it could, he said.

Duell said that the camellia was “unquestionably” their favorite flower and that preference was passed down through the family.

His mother, Josephine Smith Duell, established a camellia nursery on the property in the 1940s, and by the 1950s, had created a prosperous commercial nursery, he said.

“She was heavily engaged in propagating new varieties from seedlings,” and she would graft them, grow them and the new varieties would then be named … obviously named after family members first, Duell said.

Middleton Place is set apart, Duell said, by the history of the introduction of the camellia and the ancestry of the trees.

“People are attracted to the flower itself because it has more variety and appeal than the azalea, “ Duell said. “It’s more sophisticated (and) en masse, is psychedelic.”

Frazier said the appeal of Middleton is that the generations have never altered the “bones of the garden. We are still walking the grounds created in 1741,” he said. The draw is “to see true landscaping on the magnitude that you would have to see in France or Italy,” as well as “the marriage between native plant material and exotic plant material. The native trees protect the exotic plants,” he said.

Middleton Place is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and admission options include the gardens, main house, stableyards and other plantation structures. The nursery and gift shop are open to the public without charge.

The guided camellia walks will begin at 11 a.m. each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, Feb. 9-March 19, but guests are welcome to their own self-guided tours of the gardens.