Further Notes on the Exbury Hybrid Azaleas in Virginia
Thomas Wheeldon, Richmond, Virginia
On a recent visit to Virginia, Mr. G. H. Pinckney, Managing Director of John Waterer Sons & Crisp, Ltd. of Bagshot, Surrey, England, said that all but a handful of American small azalea growers are missing out on one of the most spectacular shrubs this group has to offer. The remarkable plant comes from the new race of azalea novelties of the Exbury strain.
These hybrids produce flowers measuring four inches across in large trusses with amazing growth habits and configuration. The range of color is as wide as that found in a stunning sunset. The development of these azaleas was very considerably advanced by the late Mr. L. de Rothschild of Exbury Estate, who by crossing the best only of generations of seedlings, improved beyond all belief the color and size of flower. Some of the most recent hybrids of this famous strain have been on trial for several seasons and there are now available to us in America varieties which have been selected for outstanding color size of flower and vigor. Some of these varieties were shown at the Chelsea Flower Show in England in 1952 for the first time, and several have been selected by the Royal Horticultural Society for trial at their garden at Wisely, Surrey. These azaleas flower later than the general run of their kinfolk. Here in Virginia they flower during the last half of May. They remain in bloom for at least three weeks.
Since these large flowered azaleas trace their ancestry back to almost a dozen species and R. Calendulaceum, an Eastern American relative, is strongly represented, one is led to believe that the plants will be particularly adaptable to this region. The same may be said of the areas in which R. Occidentale is native, for undoubtedly R. Occidentale figures in the species from which this new race sprung. Fairly upright in habit, some of the Exbury hybrids, are a little tighter in growth than others. The shrubs will eventually become bushy, six to seven foot plants. It seems that these new azaleas should be better known and have a wider field of distribution. The reasons that they are not are as follows:
- The American nurserymen, as a whole, are so successful in growing and selling the more usual varieties, that little attempt has been made to interest the public in these large flowered hybrids.
- Up until recently, it has been difficult to propagate these azaleas asexually from cuttings. This obstacle has been remedied now. Propagation by layering is slow and expensive and of course, propagating from seedlings gives plants that cannot be certified altogether as to trueness.
- If the plants are imported, the cost is increased by the expense of such a procedure, unless the plants are imported in quantity.
- Up until recently, the plants were damaged quite badly during the importing process. However, this fault has been corrected almost completely. It requires only five days to obtain these by air express and eight days by freight on the "Queen", if digging and sailing dates are closely synchronized. In the past, there has been some complaint of delays in Customs. This, has been eliminated entirely for the Department of Entomology and Plant Quarantine at the Import Station has been cooperative to the point where plants have remained in their station only a few hours at the most.
- There has been a great lack of sufficient opportunity for the public as a whole to see these wonderful plants. It is hoped that in at least a few gardens, a sufficiently large collection of these hybrids will be built up and that these will be opened to the public. There are several scores of named varieties from which one can choose. Most are single, but few tend toward the hose-in-hose type.
These hybrids require shelter from the sun in the summertime, liking filtered shade beneath trees or placement on the north side of a building. There is no question of winter hardiness; they can stand temperatures of well below zero. Like other ericaceous plants, the Exbury hybrid azaleas, must have an acid soil, rich in humus. It is advisable to mulch the plants well with peat moss, pine tags or other material.