JARS v42n1 - Professor Baker's Azalea

Professor Baker's Azalea
Judson Hardy
Silver Spring, Maryland

Little known by azalea buffs a few years ago, R. bakeri from the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia has been receiving more attention lately.
After years of confusion as to its correct name the taxonomists finally agreed that the azalea named in honor of Professor Woolford Baker of Emory University in 1937 had priority. Its more poetic synonym "Cumberland azalea" is preferred by many.

The writer's interest in Professor Baker's azalea began with reading Dr. Henry Skinner's classic "In Search of Native Azaleas" in the 1957 Royal Horticultural Society's Year Book on Camellias and Rhododendrons. Who could resist a plant thus described: ". . . toward the summit of Branch Mountain a spot of brilliant red, like a scarlet tail-light shone from the top of a cliff... the reward (of an arduous climb) was a tiny, twiggy, rock-clinging azalea plant . . . covered like a pin cushion with little red bells ... a gem for the garden if its habit is not unduly altered by cultivation."

After extensive search a source was found at Coleman's Nursery in Fort Gaines, Georgia. Three small plants each of R. bakeri and R. prunifolium were ordered and arrived in Silver Spring in due time. Twenty years later these six plants are the foundation of a somewhat disorderly collection of native species, Exbury-Knaphill cultivars and seedlings thereof, interspecies crosses, and crosses between the natives and the European hybrids.

R. bakeri
R. bakeri
Photo by R.H. Goodrich

Growing in high deciduous shade, two of the original R. bakeri plants are slightly over five feet tall and upright rather than spreading. Each June they erupt in a cloud of yellow to orange-red flowers. These are in clusters of five to ten or more flowers 1½ inches across the flat corolla with fairly short, yellowish tubes. Foliage is on the smallish side, a dark green, which unfortunately does not turn into one of the bright colors in autumn.

The third original plant is about two feet high. Its even smaller and darker leaves form an umbrella-like mound atop which only a few flower clusters open, two weeks later than on the larger plants. The color is clear, bright red, and on an overcast day the flowers indeed glow like Skinner's "scarlet tail-light".

Nearby in a sunny spot is the R. bakeri selection 'Alhambra', vigorous, spreading, more floriferous, in an orange tone. The three larger plants root easily as layers, but repeated attempts to reproduce the low-growing specimen had failed until this past spring when two strong stolons were separated and potted.

In the writer's opinion, the only other red native equaling the color of R. bakeri is R. speciosum . The true red is hard to come by in this species, but Dan Coleman, Jr., writes from Fort Gaines that he has located several fine reds in the wild. These have been transplanted to his father's "Azalea Trail" and will be propagated.

Other yellow-to-red native species are R. austrinum , the August-blooming R. prunifolium , and of course R. calendulaceum . Skinner theorizes that eons ago R. calendulaceum may have been derived in part from R. bakeri . There is considerable resemblance between them still.

Of the five species, only R. austrinum is fragrant. Since its homeland is the plains and hills of north Florida and along the Gulf Coast, this azalea holds promise, through crossing with the European hybrids, of introducing larger and more variously colored flowers to the deep South.

R. bakeri is a favorite parent among several hybridizers working toward this end. It tends to confer its neat foliage, which is resistant to powdery mildew and many insects, and its late midseason bloom on whatever one crosses it with. Another desirable trait is that R. bakeri hybrids often bloom in three to four years from seed - sooner, if a greenhouse or fluorescent rig is used to extend the growing season. R. bakeri x 'Royal Lodge' and x 'Medford Red' already have produced rather large and attractive flowers on nice plants.

Reliably hardy in this area, modest, graceful, adaptable, Professor Baker's azalea really does not need larger flowers to make it a desirable plant for shaded gardens wherever it can be grown.

This article by the late Judson Hardy originally appeared in the Potomac Valley Chapter newsletter, September 1979.