FURTHER COMMENTS ON AZALEA SPECIES
S. D. Coleman, Ft. Gaines, Ga.
As a boy I often heard it said that smart people listened, observed, thought and said little, while others did the talking, but I have often wondered how much knowledge was buried, and what good it did in the advancement of science. Our best science comes from the minds of many, a little from one, a little from others, and expanded by still others.
Science and observation teach us that inbreeding tends to bring out inferior genes, whereas out-breeding tends to bring out superior genes and vigor, although with some plant life self-pollination is the usual thing. Man has had much to do with the crossing of plants, and the increase of variability of the different species, although lightning and fire have played a part, and bees do not know a related plant from an unrelated one. Winds and floods have scattered seed and so we get many variations in nature and after many hundreds of years of separation new species may be formed.
As an illustration, corn, belonging to one species, was sent to many parts of the world, and many strains came about, by selection. Distant but related plants are now being hybridized, and we are getting more and better corn.
It is fortunate that many of our species were described and named many years ago, so we can have names and types to discuss. One line of thought is that R. calendulaceum is of hybrid origin; possibly most of our species came about this way, or some by geographical separation. The large flowered type of R. calendulaceum has double chromosome count, and quite a variation in color; my personal thought is, the original type was yellow and R. bakeri was red.
Nature does not discard the inferior strains, although the collector selects the better types, and leaves the poorer types to carry on. Slow changes have been going on for ages, as nature seems to work this way. A late change I would say is in the Great Smoky Mountains, extending both North and South from Soco Gap, where plants of R. calendulaceum are the last of this species to bloom. On this trail one sees plants of the type of R. bakeri, and a most beautiful assortment of colors, and plant variations, very beautiful and interesting groups of plants. I did not see too much lavender or purple. Some other species also could have taken part in this combination.
In the early ages the species R. prunifolium came to South West Georgia and South East Alabama, I would say before the above exchange began. Here we have ideal growing conditions, and a longer growing season, with well drained hillsides and tall timber. So naturally the azaleas grow faster and taller. In bringing in R. bakeri from many stations I see a similarity in the two species, partly glabrous foliage, and tube mostly without hairs. Although the blotch on the upper lobe of R. bakeri is more prominent, and the tube could be slightly shorter, the foliage is the same type but smaller. R. bakeri blooms here just before R. prunifolium begins, but some plants bloom at the same time. Both are classed as red, although R. prunifolium does not have the many variations in color, possibly clue to the fact that it has not had the benefit of other species growing in the same area that bloom at that time. However R. serrulatum, a white, is just below here and we should get a pink from this cross; and I have searched.
We do not know how long our plant of R. prunifolium has been here; the flower does have a slight tinge of yellow, but still is classed as a red. My best comparison of R. prunifolium with R. bakeri has been with a plant of the latter given to me by Dr. W. N. Fortesque, who brought it from near Cumberland, Kentucky. The plant is growing beautifully, right near a grouping of R. prunifolium, where it might pass as a dwarf R. prunifolium. One can find many differences in R. bakeri from station to station but both R. prunifolium and R. bakeri deserve distinct specific status.
In the first stages of the species R. alabamense the plant must have had red or pink flowers, pollen of some other near related species crept in and provided a combination giving us our albinos or whites.
R. speciosum seemingly settled in middle Georgia, first classed as a red, and one place called flame, and (two of my friends said) never yellow. I spent much time searching and located a yellow. The flower has a long glandless tube, pubescent underside of foliage, glabrous winter buds, and is an early bloomer, along with R. canescens and R. alabamense. In North Georgia it seems to have been receiving pollen from the early form of R. calendulaceum which has a short tube with gland tipped hairs. This shows up in the cross, but in the cross with R. canescens the winter buds are still glabrous, but there are many shades of pink. With some other species joining in we get another beautiful collection, and after many generations of separation, new species may be formed.
When the many species are moved to the Trail, naturally the time of bloom changes, some times as much as a month. In the mountains one can take a days ride and from mountain to mountain find these different stages of bloom, seed pods forming, flowers, and buds on the same species, R. carolinianum.
We have had R. carolinianum, R. chapmanii, and R. minus all blooming at the same time; also R. austrinum, R. alabamense, R. calendulaceum, R. speciosum, just a few flowers at the same time. Plants moved to the Trail from scattered stations continue to bloom at different intervals. From those gathered from one location, there is the solid mass of bloom effect. Most of our writers say that R. carolinianum blooms before R. minus, which is so in some cases. Actually the main difference is that the tube is longer in R. minus, and the variation in color is greater in R. carolinianum. R. minus is more of a Southern plant and R. carolinianum more of a mountain plant. Both plants do well on the Trail, planted in good humus soil, well mulched, watered until the plant is established, and then left alone.
R. roseum is more of a Northern and mid Western plant, the wood and winter buds comparing favorably in plants from Arkansas and from the North East. The plants from Arkansas will grow here. The plant grown here as R. prinophyllum, Small, now considered synonymous with R. roseum, from North Alabama and Southern Tennessee has wood similar to R. roseum, but the winter bud is more pubescent and more rounded. It grows nicely here, and has nice fragrance.
In my search for these plants I have wondered what kept plant life in balance. I revisit stations where I collected special plants and find no sign of the plant wanted; the place is covered with underbrush.
Rhododendron 'Roseum Elegans' grows beautifully here, and R. maximum will grow and bloom where there is moisture and shade. Am sure there are many others.