JARS v41n3 - Northern Grown Azaleas

Northern Grown Azaleas
Bob Carlson
South Salem, New York

The article was adapted from a talk given May 17, 1986, to the Azalea Society of America at their annual dinner meeting and originally printed in The Azalean, the Journal of the Azalea Society of America.

For 17 years, in fact until just about a year ago, I was a full time, traveling computer software salesman and, unfortunately, only a part time nurseryman. This meant that my wife, Jan, found herself in the role of full time manager of the nursery that I had started as a result of my enthusiasm for fragrant azaleas; especially when I was on the road, which was much of the time!

Well, one spring evening, a few years back, as I was sitting alone at a nearly empty bar at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and wishing I was back home with my family AND my azaleas, the following thoughts popped into my head.

No Waiting
If you've walked into a nightclub
When there isn't any hubbub,
Excepting one bartender, you and booze,
You can rest assured he's going to say:
"You're the victim of the Should Have Been Here Yesterday,
But Wait Until Tomorrow's Action Blues."

To avoid this in your garden,
Make sure blooms are always startin'
When selecting the azaleas that you use -
So your guests won't have to hear you say:
"You're the victim of the Should Have Been Here Yesterday,
But Wait Until Tomorrow's Action Blues."

I'd like to share with you not just some of my favorite azaleas, but also some of my favorite nursery rhymes for who was it that said "You may take the boy out of the nursery, but you can't take the nursery out of the boy..."? So I'll start with -

Peter, Peter
Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater.
Bought a 'zalea, but couldn't keep her.
Got her in a florist shop -
One year later, what a flop!

Nice at first, but no repeater;
It died without a winter heater.
Next time he'd better try our metre -
Carlson's azaleas do not, Peter.

To put my comments about our Northern grown azaleas in perspective, I'd better let you know how cold it gets at Carlson's Gardens. Geographically we're located 50 miles north of New York City in the northeast corner of Westchester County, 3 miles from the state of Connecticut. The U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness Zone Map places us in Zone 6a with an average minimum temperature of -10 degrees. When those winter winds are howling, it's plenty cold for both azaleas and dogs.

Of course, our wintry weather can be unpredictable and unseasonable. Pink mucronulatum have gotten caught by an April 17th snowfall. They are favorites of ours because they are both our first to bloom, and can also come back from a freeze, like this one, and put on another show with the buds that weren't open when the frost, or in this case the snow, hit them.

We particularly like to mix the many shades of both soft and bright lavenders and pinks. They don't all bloom at exactly the same time and they make wonderful cut flowers for the house. A very soft pink is one of our favorites. We call it 'Pink Peignoir'.

Which brings to mind a thought that maybe not everyone has yet discovered. The best time to prune an azalea is when it's in bloom - that way you're not disturbing next year's blossoms; and you're doubling your enjoyment with some bouquets for inside the house.

So what kinds of azaleas can we grow here in the frigid North? Well, perhaps not quite as wide a selection as some of the folks from down South can grow. Still at last count we were growing more than 1200 named varieties and species of both azaleas and rhododendrons. Which is certainly a few more than our friend, Ephraim Caine, should be trying.

Ephraim Caine
Ephraim Caine is from down Maine where the pine and 'taters grow -
Where majestic pine mostly winter fine unless broke by ice and snow -
Where potato eyes soon make French fries or that Russian alcohol -
Where there's few long days with growing ways as the Spring turns into Fall.

Well one cold March Ephraim had the starch to take his missus South,
And the blooms they saw before Maine's first thaw left them both with open mouth.
So of course they yearned, after they returned, to grow azaleas there;
But from what he'd heard, it would be absurd -
No conservative would dare.

Then he found our verse and soon disbursed an order for roseum,
Which with poukhanense showed permanence; now his neighbors, too, could see 'em.
So from henceforth, if you live up North, and just remember Maine's
Colder yet than most states get, you'll succeed at raising Caine's.

What else can we grow at Carlson's Gardens? One part of our gardens we refer to as our Gable Azalea walk because it contains some of Joe Gable's very hardy varieties. Unfortunately our names for beds are not always quite so logical. Do any of you also have a "Vegetable Garden Bed" that now contains azaleas instead of vegetables? Oh, well...

The season starts in our garden with the very hardy Gable azalea, 'La Roche', and its magenta red flowers. Then in quick succession come 'Old Faithful', 'Corsage', 'Olive', 'Rose Greeley' and 'Big Joe'. Bright pink kaempferi azaleas are 'Fedora', 'Whitelegg' and 'Othello' and Joseph Martin's beautiful 'Dolores'. In addition to Gable's 'Rose Greeley', whites are 'Polar Bear', 'Delaware Valley White', 'Kathy', 'White Lady', 'Annamaria' and a Mucronatum hybrid of ours we call 'Take The Time'. A soft pink is the Glenn Dale, 'Illusion' and a low growing purple is Girard's 'Sandra Ann'.

Gable's 'Old Faithful' is about 4 feet in 15 years, a nice orchid pink that carries as pure pink in some lighting and as a definite lavender pink in others. Gable's 'Corsage' is a soft lavender that is a taller and more open grower. 'Olive' is a low and spreading Gable azalea that was selected and named by George Lee for his wife. George was the brother of Frederick Lee, the author of The Azalea Book.

'Big Joe' is a light purple that can get very tall over the years. The plant from which we obtained our original cuttings must have been at least 12 to 15 feet tall in George Lee's Connecticut garden. 'Fedora' is a bright pink kaempferi, that is especially showy and makes a great cut flower (several large branches make a wonderful bouquet.) It's a personal favorite!

'Illusion' is a Glenn Dale that George Lee said was one of the hardiest Glenn Dales in his garden; and it has been in ours, too. Most people who see it love its soft shades of pink. 'Dolores' is a very hardy, vibrant pink that Joseph Martin of Painesville, Ohio, introduced in 1974, saying that it had "withstood temperatures to a minus 20 degrees." 'Springtime' is one of Joe Gable's earliest and hardiest. A bright pink it blooms even before 'La Roche'. 'Karen' is a bone hardy, low growing, bright purple that we sometimes see available commercially.

'Nudiflora Pink' came to us from Orlando Pride and is a most unique color; "antiqued" or "old fashioned" are terms that come to mind when I try to describe it. Another personal favorite. 'Mme. Butterfly', a Deerfield hybrid, a white with lavender tinting and edges has also proved to be a favorite with many of our customers.

We obtained a lovely lavender pink from Frank Abbott of Bellows Falls, Vermont, who said it was the hardiest pink evergreen azalea he could grow. We named it 'Yankee Doodle' and introduced it for the first time in 1976, in honor of our Centennial. Gable's T-4-G is a little beauty. I can't imagine why it was never named. I measured our plant recently. In 10 years it is almost 20 inches high and a little over 3 feet wide, all with little or no pruning. It is a compact pink gem!

Gable's T-4-G
Gable's T-4-G
Photo by Bob Carlson

I'm going to offer a few words of sympathy for those of you who have been suffering through one of the driest springs in memory. We've had a dry one too; but not as dry as the season a few years back that inspired some "Words of Hope".

Words of Hope
Mrs. Jeremiah Aloysius Withington III
Hesitated planting because she said her gardener heard
On the telly and the radio and everywhere about
Of the horticulture difficulties brought about by drought.

But down the street her neighbor, Mrs. Jimmy Jones I,
Hesitated not and was preparing for the worst -
Every time that she or Mr. Jimmy took a bath
She'd ladle out the water for her plants along the path;
And every time she finished washing dishes in the sink
She'd get a pail of water for the plant that needs a drink.

Well, it wasn't very long before her neighborhood all heard,
Even Mrs. Jeremiah Withington III,
Who promptly told her butler, when he washed the St. Bernard,
To save the dirty water for her posies in the yard.
But when she called her garden club and loyally explained,
It rained...

Having had the effrontery to suggest the best time for pruning azaleas, I'm now going to be so bold as to suggest a way of minimizing the need for pruning. At least for the kind of drastic renovation that calls for cutting back a third of an overgrown plant each year. We call it "Facing Down".

Facing Down
Foundation plantings overgrown?
Face 'em down!
Detracting from your lovely home?
Face 'em down!
If leggy shrubs with knobby knees
Now resemble forest trees,
Azaleas placed in front will please -
Face 'em down!
It's easier than lopping back -
Face 'em down!
Or moves that jeopardize your back -
Face 'em down!
Just make that bed a little wider
So your new low one's the outsider,
To cover up and be the hider —
Face 'em down!

With those thoughts in mind I'll tell you about our new group of Mucronatum hybrids that we call our "Face 'Em Down Azaleas". As one of our customers pointed out to me, that's not a very elegant name for them, but we think it describes one of the best landscape uses for them.

'Early Erroll', although it opens with a touch of pink, it carries in the garden as a white. 'Sweet Maiden's Blush' is a soft pink. 'Baby's Blush' has an even daintier flower and is a lighter blush pink. 'Supersuds' has the largest flowers of the group and is almost a pure white. 'In A Mist' may just be our favorite. Jan describes it as a being like a watercolor wash.

R. 'In A Mist'
'In A Mist'
Photo by Bob Carlson

They all have the attributes of starry shaped flowers and a delightful fragrance. Frankly I prefer the soft blend of colors in a mixture of clones such as these to the glaring, unrelieved white of a planting of 'Delaware Valley White'.

I've saved till last what some might consider the black sheep of this particular family; but again it's one of my personal favorites. I call it 'Pink Patootie' and guess I like it particularly for its unusual shade of pink. Our stock plant of 'Pink Patootie' is about 3 feet high and 5 feet across in 15 years.

R. 'Pink Patootie'
'Pink Patootie'
Photo by Bob Carlson

I would be remiss if I didn't share with you at least a couple of Polly Hill's azaleas. 'Lady Locks' is a Macrosepalum hybrid with fuzzy, sticky leaves that are unlike any other azalea we grow. It seems to us to be even more fragrant than our Mucronatum hybrids. 'Hot Line', Polly describes as "just a wee bit hot purple-red". It blooms in June and gets to be 18 inches by 48 inches wide in 16 years.

Having described these evergreen azaleas that have proved hardy enough over the years for us to continue growing commercially as well as for our own garden, I should offer a few words of caution based on some 18 years of growing azaleas in the North. Despite repeated requests to sell small liners, it remains our policy not to. I can express it best in the verse, "Kindergarden".

For those of you who want to start with hardier varieties I'm going to pose some questions starting with "Who's on first? What's on second? No..."

A smallish plant from a smallish pot
Is best not shipped, no matter what!
Mortality rates the first few years
Can reduce a pocketbook to tears.
Post-natal care can not be cursory;
Most infant plants still need a nursery.
But when an azalea comes of age
Suddenly the world's its stage!
From the terrible two's a move's less shocking,
Reducing the need for Dr. Spocking.
It helps to know the plants you're startin'
Have graduated Kindergarden!

Who's on first? What's on second? No...
Who was the first hybridizer to grow
Azaleas that score after forty below?
What kind of azaleas are second to none,
Fulfilling all bases of comparison?
Lest this third degree tempt you to say, "I don't know."
Try the game winning answer that's most apropos -
"Hey, A — A — BBOTT !!!"

Many years ago I visited with Frank Abbott in Bellows Falls, Vermont, and came away with both seeds and cuttings from his 40 or more years of hybridizing for hardy azaleas. Here are just a few of the deciduous clones that we have selected and named to date:

'Abbott's Rose Ruffles' is a soft ruffled pink that is now about 5 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet across. Out of the same seed lot came a little beauty that we called 'Starfire'. A little gem went under the name of 'Abbott's Yellow No Name' for several years after my daughter, Sue, took a picture without tagging the plant in the nursery and none of us could remember which plant it was. It has since been refound and was renamed 'Sparkle Plenty' for inclusion in Fred Galle's azalea book.

Two more were named when I was on a nostalgia kick wishing I could change my style of piano playing to be like Jerry Lee Lewis. I called a screaming rose red, 'The Killer'. 'Little Queenie' is a low growing off-white.

R. 'Little Queenie'
'Little Queenie'
Photo by Bob Carlson

Now just in case any of you have had any hardiness problems growing evergreen azaleas and are reluctant to try any of the wonderful deciduous varieties that are available, let me relate to you a fairly recent experience by our long-time friend, Mrs. Withington.

Mrs. Withington
Mrs. Jeremiah Aloysius Withington III
Was not enthusiastic as she solemnly conferred
With her gardener about what to do with fifty new azaleas,
For many she had tried before succumbed as winter failures.

"I loved them at the florist's in those lovely shades of red;
Yet no matter where we put them, by Spring most all were dead.
I wanted kinds that kept their leaves instead of those that don't;
But my husband's mother's letter says she ordered ones that won't!
Instead of wasting time again I think we'll just forget them -
I'll see if Mrs. Jones's husband wants to come and get them."

No sooner had she offered and put down the telephone
Than Mrs. Jimmy Jones I had lugged them home alone;
And by the time that Mr. Jimmy got home after work,
He found all fifty planted and a knowing wifely smirk.

The winter cold was dreadful, but those plants came through it all
And when they started blossoming, you know who had a ball.
Their blooms were so spectacular, the Joneses both concurred,
They had to show them first to Mrs. Withington III,
Who once again discovered that she hadn't fully reckoned
On the vaunted expertise of Mrs. Withington II.

So if you need some super hardy azaleas or want to indulge yourself with some colors that aren't available in the evergreen azaleas, I would urge you to consider some of these deciduous azaleas. First some of our own selections: 'Carlson's Coral Flameboyant' is an early blooming form of calendulaceum that appeared in both Flower & Garden and American Horticulturist . 'Janice Monyeen' is a soft, scrumptious, fragrant yellow Exbury hybrid that I named for my wife, Jan. 'Susan Monyeen' is a lovely pink Mollis hybrid named for my daughter, Sue. A delicately shaded pink Ghent hybrid is also named for Sue. We call it 'Mlle. Sue'.

An intensely fragrant Exbury hybrid is appropriately named 'Heaven Scent'. Fred Galle describes it as "white, flushed pink, light yellow on upper lobe." 'Sunny-Side-Up' is a white Exbury with a yellow yolk, and nicely fragrant. We call a new soft colored Ghent 'Creme Fraiche'.

Since we've been known to refer to ourselves as "Your Fragrant Yellow Azalea Seller" I thought I would describe to you two more of our new yellow hybrids. 'Carlson's Cold Nuggets' is a fragrant vivid yellow Exbury. 'Moon Melons' is a very large flowered yellow hybrid of calendulaceum x flavum that blooms as late as mid-June.

R. 'Moon Melons'
'Moon Melons'
Photo by Bob Carlson

Here are some of my favorite named deciduous azaleas from other hybridizers: Orlando Pride's 'Peach Sherbet' has a name that describes it beautifully; Art Knuttle's 'Banana Split' is also appropriately named.

Now for some beauties named for the ladies: 'Annabella' is a very fragrant deep golden yellow with dark bronze foliage; 'Barbara Jenkinson' is a tall growing soft orange. A luscious soft pink is the variety we know and love as 'Cecile'. It is obviously not the 'Cecile' sometimes described as a vivid red with a vivid orange yellow blotch.

'Norma' is a late blooming double rose red with a salmon glow. 'Gallipoli' is a large flowered watermelon red Exbury. 'Golden Eagle' is a bright orange Exbury with a yellowish-orange flare. One of my favorite Mollis Hybrids is 'Samuel T. Coleridge'. It is a lovely soft pink that is almost translucent when the sun is behind it. 'Golden Oriole' is a brilliant yellow Exbury with a deep orange blotch. 'Iora' carries in the-garden as a creamy white. 'White Cap' is one of the best Ilams we know. Unfortunately it is difficult to find commercially. 'Sunrise' is also one of the best orange Ilams, but like 'White Cap' seems to have been dropped by wholesale growers.

'Cannon's Double' is a new double pale pink that we like very much. 'Evening Glow' is a frilled soft pink tinged with light yellow. Like 'Norma' it changes color as it ages. 'Sham's Yellow' is a frilled lemon yellow that is deservedly fairly widely available. 'Royal Lodge' is probably my favorite of all the Exburys. A large deep red that is later than most Exburys, the eight foot plant of 'Royal Lodge' that is at the end of our terrace perfumes our yard with an intense clove scent from late May into early June. A real treat!

I'm afraid space doesn't permit me to describe to you most of the native azaleas of which we're particularly fond. But I'd like to close by relating to you one person's experience with one of our favorite species. Again it concerns our old friend Mrs. Withington, who I should probably explain is a composite of some of our favorite customers. Incidentally, I'm told this verse will be reprinted in the near future in "The New England Farm Bulletin". Hopefully it will prompt some of you to try this species, if you haven't already.

Mrs. Withington's Arborescens
Mrs. Jeremiah Aloysius Withington III
Always leaves for Maine each year about June 23rd
With several cats and dogs, the cook, and just a maid or two -
"It's still a trifle chilly, but one does what one must do!"
A single day of summer south of Maine is quite unheard
Of, when you have a pedigree like "Withington III".

Meanwhile back in Upper Crust her garden scene is quiet,
Since plants are only authorized to hold a Springtime riot.
"What's the use of summer blooms that I'm not there to see?"
But can you guess whose gardener left behind did not agree?
Who after many bloomless summers went June 24th
And bought azaleas that would bloom while Withington was North?

But it so happens that he chose some fragrant arborescens,
Which next year were the source of one of Nature's harsher lessons -
That trips are more precise than blooms, he hadn't fully reckoned,
For arborescens in full bloom on June the 22nd
Not only got the trip to Maine historically deferred,
But got him three more weeks that year of Withington III.

Bob Carlson is the owner of Carlson's Gardens, South Salem, New York and a member of the New York Chapter, ARS. </p>

Verses Copyright 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983 Bob Carlson.