04 Mar Soles, hands behind the camellias of Río Tollo
Her passion for plants has led her to lead the growth of the flagship crop of Río Tollo, which has almost 100 varieties of camellia and has another fifty under study
Her passion for plants runs in her family. At the age of 14, she began to collect the first specimens of hers collected from the neighborhood gardens, too many for her mother’s taste, who always advised her to have few and well placed to show off. Who was going to tell María Soledad Rodríguez, Soles, that years later she was going to become Río Tollo’s camellia expert. Her hands keep the secret of the star crop of the nursery, which began with just 7,000 cuttings and now exceeds a million and a half each year.
Although her passion for them was not a crush, it was a love forged over a slow fire. “At home we had two camellias that my grandfather had gone to buy at the market in Porto, one red and one bicolor, but I saw them as inaccessible, as a very difficult crop that required a lot of knowledge,” she recalls. An idea that took root in her even more when transplanting the two trees, already more than 50 years old, they did not survive.
She never thought that she would end up dedicating herself to her true passion, although whenever she could she escaped in search of plants with her brother Santos, linked to the sector. Until one day he made her a crazy proposal: try to introduce the camellia in the region. It was the birth of Río Tollo, created jointly with two other partners, Quin and Jose. “I saw it as something very difficult, it seemed impossible to me to start producing a potted crop that I associated with trees and gardens,” she explains. Her reticence vanished when a former client of the catering establishment she ran showed her “the enormous collection of varieties that there were and that I did not know, my eyes were opened.” He gave her a double red Eugenia de Montijo that she still has today, she fell in love with camellias forever.
It was then that little by little she began to visit gardens, to see books, to try to catalog them, to know colors, varieties, to manage the crop… to go a long way of learning. “It was a process of more than two decades. Once you enter the world of the camellia, everything is reached, but getting to know them is something that takes time, it is achieved little by little and with experience”. Now, 24 years later, she still has a notebook with the plans of the gardens in the area that they went through every summer at the beginning in search of plants until they began their own selection of mother plants.
Throughout these years Soles and the Río Tollo camellia team have been creating their own collection of almost a hundred varieties, although they continue to bet on innovation and are studying more than 50 new varieties. “The world evolves fast. We want to have crops that identify us, that make us more attractive and make a difference”, explains Soles who, after so many years, still “feels ignorant in the world of camellia, especially when I talk to passionate collectors who know infinity of species. And it is that in the world of camellia you are always learning, because from the same seed you can get a different variety, a new hybrid”.
Soles has been growing with Río Tollo, and with the nursery his obligations. She is responsible for Human Resources, she is happy to contribute her grain of sand in this area because she is clear that “people come first”. “I’ve been here for many years, like many workers, and in the end we’re like a big family.”
Of course, she misses working more in the middle of the camellias. Her experience tells her that in every part of the world the public prefers one color or another, stronger in Portugal, warmer in England. But she likes “all of them, really. I don’t keep track of the camellias I have at home, although in the end I paid a little attention to my mother and only grow the fair ones. Luckily, I enjoy the rest in the nursery”.