JARS v38n2 - The Azalea Hunters of Biltmore

The Azalea Hunters of Biltmore
Bill Alexander

"From Clyo to Sisters Ferry where (we) found A. speciosa in deep red and flame shades almost to yellow. From here back to main dirt road and south through Stillman to Ebenezer Church. Along 'wire line' back of cemetery (we) found and collected A. speciosa in various shades and one remarkable azalea..." 1 . April 20, 1940, was a good day for the "Azalea Hunters" - C.D. Beadle, William A. Knight, and Frank M. Crayton.
Between 1931 and 1945, this band of explorers launched numerous forays into the Appalachian wilds. Together, the "Azalea Hunters" gathered as many species of native Azaleas as they could find. Today, these specimens are part of a unique horticultural environment known as Biltmore Estate.
Part of what makes Biltmore so unique is its history. Constructed in the late 1890s by George Vanderbilt, the Estate was patterned after the grand chateaux built along France's Loire River. Vanderbilt found his rivers in the French Broad and Swannanoa. The ancient Appalachian Mountains provided a dramatic setting for his French Renaissance chateau, designed by the foremost architect of the times, Richard Morris Hunt.
Vanderbilt, retained the services of Frederick Law Olmstead, the master of naturalistic landscape design, to design the gardens immediately surrounding the house and the grounds leading up to it. Biltmore occurred late in Olmsted's career. At the time he was approached by Vanderbilt, Olmsted was in the throes of designing the Stanford University campus as well as grounds for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Biltmore presented Olmsted with a challenge and an opportunity not found in these other two projects. The challenge was to turn land which had been over-logged and over-farmed for years into Vanderbilt's vision of a fertile, productive, working estate. The opportunity was to create something akin to the great gardens of England and Europe using as a foundation the spectacular plants native to the North Carolina mountains - Azalea, Rhododendron, Laurel, Hemlock, and White Pine. Enter Chauncey Delos Beadle, Chief of Biltmore Estate's Landscape Department.
Beadle was a Cornell-educated Canadian horticulturist. He was brought to Biltmore by Olmstead to supervise the planting of the grounds according to his plan and establish and operate the estate's nursery. But before Beadle's death in 1950, he made his own contribution to the estate - one of the most complete collections of native azaleas in existence.
What is now called the Azalea Garden began as the Glen Plans for the area, drawn in 1901 by Olmsted's two sons, included many varieties of Ericaceous trees and shrubs. The plantings of conifers, magnolias, hollies, and such rarities as the Franklinia tree and Elliottia are Beadle's addition to the 1901 plan. These specimens provide a green curtain against which the subtly-colored blooms of the native azaleas can be viewed beginning in late April and continuing through May.

Biltmore Azalea Garden.

It was Beadle's belief that the native deciduous azalea was the finest American shrub. In his pursuit of various specimens, he and the other "Azalea Hunters:" (a name they coined for themselves) traveled to North Caroline, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and even Pennsylvania. At the time his collection was given to the estate in 1940, it totaled some 15 species and many forms and hybrids. But given the native azalea's tendency to hybridize freely in the wild, there are many plants in the Azalea Garden whose ancestry is difficult to trace. The extensive records kept by the "Azalea Hunters", document the plants they found, their original habitat, and their various blooming characteristics. (See List of Azaleas Collected by C.D. Beadle, William A. Knight, and Frank M. Crayton).
Beadle added more to the estate than plants. He created a natural and pleasing environment, consistent with the Olmsted plan, in which they can be viewed. For while the Biltmore azaleas are carefully tended, they have been planted and maintained consistent with their natural growth patterns. They are complimented by numerous hybrid azaleas and rhododendrons. Among the latter are unnamed Dexter hybrids, obtained by a Vanderbilt family member from Charles Owen Dexter's Massachusetts estate.
The log documenting travels of the "Azalea Hunters" ends with a handwritten entry. "Mr. W.A. Knight, who wrote this folio for the "Azalea Hunters" died in Coral Gables, Florida, February 12, 1947." In that year, Beadle retired. He died three years later, leaving Biltmore Estate with a colorful and unique horticultural legacy. The Azalea Garden remains a tribute to C. D. Beadle and his love of the native deciduous Azalea.

1 From "Field Notes/Collecting Trips" by C. D. Beadle and William A. Knight.

Native Azalea Species
(as listed by the "Azalea Hunters")
More Currently Known As:*
Azalea alabamensis
(white and pink forms)
Rhododendron alabamense Rehder
Alabama Azalea
A. arborescens
(white and pink forms)
R. arborescens (Pursh) Torrey
Smooth or Sweet Azalea
A. arborescens var. Richardsonii
(clear yellow, salmon pink, orange)
R. calendulaceum R. arborescens
A. atlantica
(white, white double-flowered, pink, pale yellow)
R. atlanticum (Ashe) Rehder
Coastal Azalea
A. pseudo-atlantica (Not Valid)
A. austrina R. austrinum (small) Rehder
Florida Flame Azalea
A. bakeri
(red, late red, orange (flame), orange red, "black" red)
R. bakeri (W.P. Lemm. & McKay) H. Hume
Cumberland Azalea
A. calendulacea
(yellow, orange, red, & late flowering forms)
R. calendulaceum (Michaux) Torrey
Flame Azalea
A. canescens
(white, pink & double-flowered forms)
R. canescens (Michaux) Sweet
Piedmont Azalea or Florida Pinxter
A. canescens (subglabra type)
A. furbishii R. furbishii ( R. bakeri x R. arborescens ) or ( R. calendulaceum (late form) x R. arborescens ) - Hybrid
A. nudiflora R. periclymenoides (Michx.) Shinn
( R. nudiflorum (L) Torrey)
Pinxterbloom Azalea, Pinxter Flower
A. nudiflora var. glandifera (Not Valid)
A.oblongifolia R. oblongifolium (Small) Millais
Texas Azalea
A. occidentalis R. occidentale Gray
Western or Pacific Azalea
A. prunifolia R. prunifolium (Small) Millais
Plumleaf Azalea
A. rosea R. prinophyllum (Small) Millais
( R. roseum Rehder) - Rose-shell Azalea
A. serrulata R. serrulatum (Small) Millais
Hammock-sweet Azalea
A. speciosa
(red, crimson red, late red)
R. flammeum (Michx.) Sarg
( R. speciosum (wild) sweet)
Oconee Azalea
A. speciosa x nudiflora
(purplish pink)
R. flammeum x R. periclymenoides
A. vaseyi R. vaseyi A. Gray
Pink-shell Azalea
A. viscosa R. viscosum (L) Torrey
Swamp Azalea
A. viscosa montana R. viscosum var. montanum Rehder
*Reference: Hortus III