QBARS - v30n1 Development of the New York Chapter Azalea Study Group

The Development of the New York Chapter Azalea Study Group
Betty Hager, Albertson, New York

How It All Began: After preliminary discussions the previous year, a nucleus of azalea admirers met at the home of Betty and Emil Hager in November 1971 to launch an azalea study group. These seventeen members agreed that here was a magnificent series in the Genus Rhododendron whose beauty, grace, and remarkable diversity in flower and plant form as well as versatility in landscape use had never been fully recognized.
This was evident at our chapter plant sales where members were reluctant to purchase the rare and unusual named azaleas that had been especially propagated to share with them. Upon questioning, we discovered they needed an introduction into the world of azaleas in order to appreciate them. So we decided to do something about it and to make education our prime purpose.
To initiate the study of the history and development of azaleas, we believed a review of our Eastern natives would be a good choice. So we asked Miriam Dowd of Planting Fields Arboretum to present a slide program at our December meeting to be followed by an informal discussion (who grew them, where available, propagation, fall foliage, etc.). Everyone was asked to bring in a budded branch of any native found in the garden and to read any literature available on the species. Miriam's exceptional talk with her beautiful slides met with warm response. She also started our reference file with a bound collection of articles on the azalea species, including a bibliography.
At our next session it seemed logical to follow with a discussion of the Ghents, so Frank Arsen, who has been growing these plants for a number of years, volunteered to outline the hybridizing history of this group and to find out what varieties were growing in New York gardens. We wondered what nurseries still carried these hybrids, so Jane McKay offered to act as secretary and wrote letters to almost fifty nurserymen. A tabulation of all hybrids and species listed in these catalogs is now being prepared, so anyone wishing a source for any specific plant may learn where it is available.
Since participation is the key to maintaining interest in any project, it was decided that each study club member be required to accept responsibility for part of a future program, that is, to research a topic assigned by the chairman and then give an informal 10 to 20 minute talk, demonstration, or slide lecture at a coming meeting. We felt one or two brief discussions each session with time for questions and comments would keep interest at a high level. We would attempt to maintain a relaxed atmosphere so both the reticent and the eager would feel free to exchange thoughts. Later, over coffee and a selection of cakes baked by our members, we agreed our Azalea Study Group was on its way.
Our next activity was to ask each person to prepare a list of favorite azaleas, ten evergreen and ten deciduous, including both species and hybrids. This assignment was to be the entrance requirement for the following meeting. The top dozen in order of popularity were: Evergreen: 'Louise Gable', 'Dayspring', 'Martha Hitchcock', 'Palestrina', 'Peach Blow', 'Glacier', 'Rose Greeley', 'Rosebud', 'Geisha', 'Allure', 'Balsaminaeflora', 'Campfire' or 'Stewartstonian'. Deciduous: schlippenbachii , luteum , vaseyi , 'Cecile', 'Corneille', 'Gibraltar', 'Homebush', 'Oxydol', pentaphyllum , prunifolium , arborescens , 'Strawberry Ice'.
Now that four years have passed since this survey, it would be interesting to again ask this question to note any changes now that other hybrids and species have been added to our gardens. Plants have been made available to us through our reciprocal plant exchanges, our chapter plant sales (two a year), and our cutting and seed programs.
Membership has grown from 17 to about 50 on an average and we now meet in a library, centrally located, during the fall and winter months. Tours are scheduled in the spring to arboretums and home gardens. Due to the heavy activity of the New York Chapter on May weekends, we found evenings to be a good time to squeeze in a visit to another garden. As a result some of us azalea buffs look pretty sleepy by the time June arrives. Of course daylight hours are needed for photography and augmenting our chapter azalea slide library is important. While our slides are limited now, we hope to make a concerted effort next spring to add substantially to our azalea collection. Perhaps in the near future our group may be able to send a slide program to the ARS Slide Library on the azaleas growing on Long Island.
Our programs are varied and sometimes spontaneous. Using Lee's Azalea Book as a reference, we have touched on the following subjects:

  • The Beautiful Hardy Gables Story of the Glenn Dales
  • The Kurumes - Where Are They?
  • Dwarf Azaleas for Your Garden
  • Report on Species Azaleas
  • Technique of Hybridizing
  • Azaleas Insects (life cycle, how, when and what to spray)
  • Diseases (petal blight is our big problem now)
  • Fall Foliage of Azaleas in the Landscape
  • How to Collect and Clean Seed Capsules. (Did you know seed capsules are attractive in miniature dried arrangements?)

We have occasionally staged three hour educational programs at Planting Fields Arboretum. A small registration fee ($1.50) covered room cost and refreshments and assured a true interest on the part of the listener. These lectures have been highly successful. Subjects presented were: Colchicine in Plant Breeding, How to Photograph Azaleas, Azaleas of the Piedmont Area, Azaleas of Japan, and How to Bonsai an Azalea.
A popular session each summer is our propagation demonstration on evergreen azaleas held in mid-July in a garden where members and guests watch the preparation of a box for the plastic bag method. A drawing is held for the completed box, and extra cuttings are available as well as propagation supplies. Somehow a discussion of rhododendron propagation creeps in, too, proving we azalea lovers really do not have tunnel vision. Another member conducts a garden demonstration in late June for the deciduous azaleas. A small fee is charged for these sessions to cover refreshments and also to aid the chapter treasury. We have found these meetings provide a friendly climate for new contacts between members and are especially helpful to the beginner.
One of the most rewarding projects of all has been the introduction of the Robin Hill evergreen hybrids for testing and evaluation in Long Island gardens with varied climates and soil conditions. These plants will be going through a critical examination by our group for several years. Many are unbelievably beautiful, and we are grateful to the hybridizer, Robert Gartrell. The first cuttings of this collection were generously rooted for us by Ray Kruse who started us off in the right direction for growing these azaleas under lights during the winter months. We are also fortunate to have other fine chapter nurserymen who have helped us by offering azaleas at our sales, sharing their professional knowledge at lectures and donating door prizes.
Assisting in the publication of our chapter booklet 'Azaleas' was another satisfying project of the Azalea Study Group. A dozen members contributed sections of the booklet under the direction of Henry Dumper, editor-writer. Another member, Pat Olds, a fine artist, painted our cover.
With Jane McKay's encouragement, one of our next goals is to search out the best azaleas for judging by the chapter Awards Committee so that well deserved recognition may be considered for many fine azaleas, whether new or old. It is time we took a good look at the many azaleas around us that have been tested by time and still show superior beauty when compared with newer hybrids. We believe the Royal Horticultural Society has given awards to 'Rosebud', 'Palestrina', and to our own native R. vaseyi , 'White Find', and all three certainly rate top honors. Each is truly superb and incomparable. And there are others!
The Azalea Study Group is fortunate to have Frank Arsen as its present chairman. Frank's unfailing propagation technique for growing container azaleas of quality and in quantity for us, coupled with his generous sharing of both plants and knowledge, has made him famous along with his wife, Gay. Equally enthusiastic in publicizing and growing azaleas is our vivacious secretary, Jane McKay, who is also a member of the ARS Evergreen Azalea Committee and an inspiration to us all.
So don't miss all the fun of learning about azaleas - start a Study Group today.