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Milberger's Nursery and Landscaping
3920 North Loop 1604 E.
San Antonio, TX 78247

Open 9 to 6 Mon. through Sat.
and 10 to 5 on Sun.

Three exits east of 281, inside of 1604
Next to the Diamond Shamrock station
Please click map for more detailed map and driving directions.

Click here

Rhododendron sp.
(azalea, wild honeysuckle)
Ericaceae (heath family)
Zones 6-9

Whereas the magnolia blossom once served as the floral symbol of the South, today that honor most likely belongs to the evergreen azaleas. Azaleas are divided into two major groups, deciduous and evergreen.

The first azaleas to be cultivated in America were our own native deciduous types. In a letter to James Madison in 1791, Thomas Jefferson says "I find but two kinds, the nudiflora and viscosa acknowledged to grow with us." Thomas Affleck's 1851-52 Mississippi catalog, offered "Fifty named varieties of the new Ghent Azaleas, hardy hybrids, between Rhododendron Ponticum and Azalea Nitida, the latter the beautiful, fragrant Wood Honeysuckle of the South" and "Azalea Ponticum, very much like the Wood Honeysuckle, but with larger corymbs of bright yellow, highly fragrant blossoms." According to Alice Coates (Garden Shrubs and their Histories, 1964), there were some five hundred "Ghent Azaleas" in commerce by 1850. Without a doubt, the Belgian growers of Ghent played the most important role in the development of our southern azaleas. In addition to developing the hardy deciduous hybrids, they also developed the evergreen "Belgian Indicas" as well.

The evergreen azaleas originated from the orient, mainly China and Japan. The Japanese have cultivated and developed their evergreen types for hundreds of years. A monograph on azaleas by Ito Ihei covering every major azalea species of Japan, plus those introduced from China and Korea, was published in 1692.

Evergreen azalea culture in the South is a relatively modern occurrence. George Stritikus, Montgomery County Extension Agent, came across an article in the May 1859 issue of American Cotton Planter and Soil, published in Montgomery, Alabama, which points this out. The article entitled "Chinese Honeysuckle, (Azalea indica)" is by Robert Nelson, horticultural editor and nurseryman from Columbus, Georgia. He starts the article by saying: "It is surprising, indeed, that this magnificent shrub---the beauty and glory of the Northern greenhouses in the early spring---is hardly ever to be met with in the South. True, a few specimens in pots may now and then (though seldom) be seen, in a very poor condition. But why keep them in pots? Turn them out of doors, into the open ground; give them but one-tenth of the attention which you bestow on the plant, while in a pot, and you will have the most beautiful blooming shrub in your garden, during March and April, that your eyes ever beheld." At the end of the article he goes on to say: "Two of the most brilliant varieties, I ever had were the two old, well known kinds, A. phoenicea and A. Hibbertia purpurea; but in fact all the Azalea indica will thrive well in this latitude..."

On February 15, 1847, Martha Turnbull of Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana noted "Azaleas put in ground" in her garden diary. There's no mention of the type, however. Today's widespread landscape use of them didn't start in earnest until this century. The tender "Indian azaleas" are a dominant part of the southern azalea scene. These large flowered beauties are hybrids derived from R. indicum, R. simsii, and others. They were developed in Europe, primarily Belgium, Holland, Germany, and England, for greenhouse culture and forcing. When these indicas reached the mild climate of the southern U.S., they were well suited for outdoor culture. Subsequently, a race of southern indica hybrids sprang up in the Carolinas in the latter half of the nineteenth century. According to Harold Hume (Azaleas and Camellias, 1936) "...had it not been that many found a place in the gardens of the Lower South and that the old nursery firm of P. J. Berckmans Co. (Fruitland Nurseries, Augusta, Georgia) became interested in them as garden plants, they would have made little impression on the gardens of America." The southern indicas remained the only evergreen azaleas grown outdoors in the United States until the importation of the Kurumes direct from Japan to California in 1915.

Kojiro Akoshi entered twelve plants in the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915, held in California (Christopher Fairweather, Azaleas, 1988). In 1914, the late Ernest "Chinese" Wilson of the Arnold Arboretum, having seen some small plants in bloom in Japan, became interested in them and in 1917, at his suggestion, an importation of Kurume azaleas was made by John Ames, North Easton, Massachusetts (Harold Hume, Azaleas and Camellias, 1936). A journey to Kurume, Japan was made by Wilson in May, 1918, were he chose fifty varieties to introduce. The "Wilson fifty" reached the Arnold Arboretum April 24, 1919. Hume says they flashed into prominence in Boston at the flower show of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in the spring of 1920.

Fine early azalea gardens of the South included Magnolia Gardens, Middleton Place, and The Oaks, near Charleston, South Carolina; Pinehurst at Summerville, South Carolina; Belle Isle at Georgetown, South Carolina; Wormsloe Plantation near Savannah, Georgia; the Whitney Estate at Thomasville, Georgia; the Brewer Garden, Winter Park Florida; Airlie at Wilmington, North Carolina; and Rosedown Plantation at St. Francisville, Louisiana.

The evergreen azalea craze spread across the South, eventually reaching Houston, the western edge of azalea country. According to information from Sadie Gwin Blackburn and her garden club's archives, the River Oaks Garden Club in Houston held their first Azalea Trail in 1936 with an attendance of over 3,000. A 1937 Houston Chronicle editorial explains the evolution of their Azalea Trail.

"In the past several years thousands of Houstonians have made pilgrimages to Southern Louisiana and Mississippi, and some gone farther eastward in the South, following the Azalea Trail. Only in the past few years have any great number of these plants been set out here, but already it has become evident there is no need of leaving Houston to enjoy the sight of these exquisite blossoms. Doubtless the day will come when people from all over the country will come to Houston to see the azaleas and camellias, just as they now go to Natchez and Charleston."

Great numbers indeed, as a March 1937 article mentions "The marvelous garden of Mrs. H. R. Cullen, which has over eight thousand Camellias and Azaleas- the largest known planting outside the famous Bellingrath Gardens of Mobile, Alabama."

Although the azalea did not reach commonplace status until the Azalea Trail age, one Houston couple obviously started much earlier. A 1937 Houston Press article, headlined Hanszen Garden Has Four Acres: 2000 Tulips: Rare Azaleas, states:

"Mr. Hanszen has collected some of the finest azaleas to be found in Louisiana. Among these, his Rosedown Orchid, over 60 years old, and the Salmon Pink, over 40 years of age, dominate the planting."

Azaleas require acidic, well drained, organic soils for successful cultivation. They generally need at least some shade to keep from burning in the heat of summer. Most prefer to grow them directly under trees. Azaleas have very shallow roots and require frequent irrigation during dry periods. Although not considered easy to propagate, they can be rooted from cuttings with high humidity or layered.