Native Azaleas - The Beadle Collection At Biltmore Forest
John C. Wister
Director, Arthur Hoyt Scott Horticultural Foundation
Reprinted from Bulletin Of The Garden Club Of America
The azaleas of our Southern mountains have always had a fascination for plant explorers, botanists and horticulturists. Over two hundred years ago John Bartram wrote "I saw blossoms covering plants on the hillside in such such incredible profusion that, suddenly opening to view from deep shade, I was alarmed by the apprehension of the hill being on fire."
Bartram brought some of these plants back to his garden. Later explorers brought plants in large enough quantities to make them well known in the gardens of Europe. In Belgium a number of these American species were crossed with Azalea luteum of Asia Minor, and possibly other species, by plant breeders to produce the famous Ghent Hybrids. Unfortunately no detailed records were kept and no one knows exactly which species were used to produce which varieties.
During the last half century commercial plant collectors have worked in the south and have shipped to the north thousands of carloads of these azaleas. The names under which they were sold were often inexact or confused. Neither the collectors, the nurseries who received them, nor the gardeners who planted them kept any careful records of the exact geographical locations where the plants had been growing, or of exact color of the flowers or the season of bloom.
Little by little botanical explorers brought back pressed specimens which they examined with the microscope and solemnly described in Latin. They called them new species, or new botanical varieties. The descriptions and comparisons with species already known were made from pressed specimens in herbariums. The possibility that some were wild hybrids apparently did not interest most of these botanists. If they saw fresh flowers the color did not interest them. The fact that the specimen might have been early blooming or late blooming did not seem to them of prime importance.
Observant gardeners, however, began to notice that plants received under the name of a single species seemed to vary somewhat in time of bloom or color. Some of these gardeners were able to travel in the south to look for particularly attractive kinds. Among such explorers was the late Henry H. Richardson of Brookline, Mass. He was a neighbor of the great Prof. C. S. Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum and was keenly interested in plants. For some years he took horseback trips through the mountains marking special plants with bright ribbons and then arranging to have these plants sent to him in the autumn. He grew these on a steep bank on his property. Some of them after his death were given to the Arnold Arboretum. Apparently they were never separated out by number or described carefully.
Another explorer, Mrs. J. Norman Henry of Gladwyn, Pennsylvania, has over a period of many years brought southern plants to her garden. Many of them are carefully labeled as to species but again apparently not individually numbered and described.
It remained for Mr. Chauncey Delos Beadle, who had been from 1890 to 1950 the Superintendent of the vast Biltmore estate near Asheville, N.C., to really explore the great area from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas, in the search not merely for new species but for interesting horticultural forms of these wild azaleas. For a period of over ten years he drove many thousands of miles each spring with his faithful chauffeur-gardener, Sylvester Owens, looking for azaleas that seemed to them different from those they already knew.
He tried to single out specimens that were superior in some way. Every effort was made to find the earliest blooming individual plants of each species and also the latest blooming to give the greatest possible range of season. Plants were selected for color to get whites or the palest possible forms of each species, and pinks, yellows, flames or reds where they occurred. Mr. Beadle's watchful eye carefully noted plants of unusual habit, whether very tall or very dwarf, very compact or very straggly. He looked also for plants carrying their flowers particularly well and for specimens that were unusually free blooming. Some of these minor differences were perhaps due to location and soil and were not to be found later when the plant was growing in the garden. In many others, however, the qualities noted were inherent in the plant after transplanting.
Mr. Beadle and his assistant carefully numbered each plant which seemed desirable to acquire. They cut and pressed the flowers for herbarium specimens, giving full information as to the exact locality where the plant was found, the elevation and the date. Then they dug the plant, transported it to Biltmore, and carefully planted it.
During the last ten years of his life Mr. Beadle thus brought together at Biltmore the largest collection of native azaleas that had ever been assembled in one place.* The exact number of specimens under number runs into the thousands. There are in the garden today over forty-five thousand plants. Of some individuals there may be only one specimen but many others have grown so fast that divisions have been taken from them and planted nearby. Still others have been propagated by layers and more recently by cuttings. The garden also contains plants which were sent to Mr. Beadle by a group of interested friends. Among these may be noted the late Wm. A. Knight of Biltmore, Mr. Frank C. Abbott of New England, and others who sent him plants growing wild all the way from Maine to Florida and through Kentucky and Tennessee to Missouri and Texas.
An eager student, Mr. Beadle planned to write a monograph on these azaleas. He worked each year laboriously over the classification and description of the various plants, some of which were recorded by the names of well known species, others by new names given by his friends or himself, or by nicknames and numbers.
As he worked it became more and more apparent that the names of existing species were not adequate to cover the plants. There seemed to be many intermediate forms not mentioned in botanical books, and there was always the possibility of natural hybrids. During the several years he worked on this monograph, each year's work in the field would show him that his previous work had been inadequate and in despair he would tear up the manuscript. At his death in 1950 he left his herbarium and the beautiful water color paintings made for him by Mrs. Lucia Porcher Johnson to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. It is hoped that future botanists will study these carefully and make from them a new classification of our wild azaleas. Here they will find much more material than has ever been gathered together in one place.
It is much more important, however, that the living plants in the Biltmore garden should be studied by competent horticulturists. For here in one place they may see thousands of plants, and may compare one with another in a way that cannot be done when the plants are growing hundreds of miles apart in their natural habitat. By comparing, for instance, the several hundreds, or thousands, of plants of our native flame azaleas, they can get a pretty complete picture of the natural variations of this species as it ranges in color from a creamy white through the pale yellows, the golden yellows, the orange yellows, the flame colors, and finally deeper colors up to a rich red.
With each plant under number it will become comparatively easy to assemble the plants of each species in a color sequence, and to pick out the best and most distinct colors, the smallest flowers and the largest, the earliest blooming and the latest. It will be equally important to pick out the most floriferous and to weed out those which may be shy blooming or straggly in habit. Enough individual plants should be selected so that some of each color can be seen in bloom at any time during the entire blooming season.
Botanists may continue to split up the species on account of some of these differences. They may even designate some of them as hybrids. But laboratory botanists will be little interested in the beauty of the specimens as garden plants. It is distinctly up to the gardener to select those plants he considers best for his purposes whether or not the botanist considers them distinct.
To have a great garden like this in one place is important. It is even more important that specimens should be propagated so that representative collections like it may be assembled in some other institution such as for instance the Arnold Arboretum near Boston and the University of Washington Arboretum in Seattle, for in this way not only will there be a double check on any conclusions drawn at Biltmore but there will be a chance to learn how the individual plants are affected by the change of climate and the different soil and environment.
American gardeners have been much too prone to be satisfied with any individual plants of species recommended by botanists. Many of these undoubtedly are good garden subjects but that they are so is a fortuitous chance. Botanists are not interested in how an individual plant will behave in a garden. They are interested in the stipules, serrations, microscopic hairs and other scientific facts of type species. These do not necessarily have any relation to the beauty of the plant or its adaptability to the garden. Individual plants within a species vary enormously. The gardener's problem is to get the good individuals. By relying on the botanists and plant collectors he is just as likely to get a poor individual as a good one, because from the point of view of the botanist there is no poor individual. It is merely a plant of a designated species.
Horticulture can be enriched by the selection of superior individuals in any group of plants wild or cultivated. What superior native azaleas we have have come to us by accident. In this great collection at Biltmore there is now an opportunity to make intelligent selection of superior individuals for the hardy azalea gardens of the future.
* The botanically recognized species include arborescens, atlanticum, austrinum, bakeri, calendulaceum, canescens, nudiflorum, prunifolium, roseum, serrulatum, speciosum, vaseyi and viscosum.