JARS v47n2 - R. vaseyi: The Pinkshell Azalea

R. vaseyi: The Pinkshell Azalea
Barbara Leypoldt
Glenville, North Carolina

As you drive south of Asheville, N.C., on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the smooth, curving road winds upward through the Great Smoky Mountains. Numerous pull-offs enable the traveler to view and photograph the scenery. You will reach Mt. Pisgah, at 6,056 feet, topped with a TV tower and a trail to its summit from the parking lot. (The trail is very pleasant and becomes steep only near the peak. The Pisgah Inn is a very popular place with a motel, excellent food, gift shop, and service station. It is perched on the edge of a bluff and has a fabulous view.) For the next 20 miles, during the month of May, the blooms of Rhododendron vaseyi will be found. Clusters of clear pink blossoms can be seen through the spruce, fir and R. maximum that is indigenous to the area.

R. vaseyi
R. vaseyi
Photo by C. R. Haag

Just south of Cashiers, in Jackson County, N.C., on N.C. #107, there is a clustering of these plants on both sides of the road that extends into the woods almost as far as the eye can see. This concentration results from an attempt in the early 1930s to establish a commercial nursery. The land was leased by a wholesale nurseryman from South Carolina and the seedlings were lined out. The mature plants were then dug and shipped south. When the project was abandoned, the surviving plants or their seedlings remained to delight passersby where they seem to float amid the pines and R. maximum .
Native only to the high mountains of western North Carolina above 3,500 feet, R. vaseyi was first discovered in 1878 by G.S. Vaseyi (1822-1893). Botanist A. Gray named it "Pinkshell" in 1880. It is of the subgenus Anthodendron, section Rhodora. A moisture lover, its native habitat has the second highest average annual rainfall within the continental U.S. In addition, mists and fog are frequent. Winter temperatures of -25°F or lower are not uncommon. Snow depths vary and fallen snow can be rearranged by very high winds. In late April 1992, flower buds were not harmed by sub-freezing cold which was followed a week later by almost 60 inches of snow (a record?).
The unscented blooms are lacking the distinct long tube of most American deciduous azaleas. They are more bell shaped with the two lower petals longer than the other three. The pale green-throated flowers are white with varying amounts of pink or rose on the edges. The upper three petals have a sprinkling of reddish spots. The exserted stamens number from five to seven, while all native azaleas, except its nearest relative, R. canadense , have only five. The flowers, in clusters of three or more, appear before the long, pointed, hairless leaves during the month of May. In the fall, the glossy leaves turn brilliant in shades of pink and red. New leaves may appear in shades of red. This tall shrub can grow to 15 feet or more, is not stoloniferous and delights in partial shade with plenty of moisture. The Royal Horticultural Society has awarded it four stars as a measure of its beauty and perfection.
Pollination is excellent and the well filled pods mature in early fall. In the wild, these pods do not open fully and remain closed at the tip, pointed downward, with the sides bowed outward and split. The minute golden seed germinates easily and grows rapidly, often setting flower buds by the end of the second year. Some plants will set buds in clusters for a truly lavish display.
In cultivation, care should be exercised to avoid the use of high nitrogen fertilizers as the roots are extremely sensitive. In one group of over 500 seedlings, more than half were dead within 24 hours when the wrong fertilizer was applied followed by a heavy rain. An adjoining group of R. calendulaceum , similarly treated, was not harmed.
Rhododendron vaseyi will not cross pollinate with any other deciduous azalea. Joe Gable noted this in 1929 when he tried to cross it with R. schlippenbachii and with the Kurumes. Without hybridization, the quest continues among collectors for better forms. 'White Find' is a named pristine clone. Darker pinks or reds are constantly hunted. One clone, known as Haag's red-flowered vaseyi , is presently in tissue culture, as is 'White Find'. It is hoped that both of these clones will be available at the National Convention in Asheville in May '94. An excursion on the Blue Ridge Parkway to view this beautiful native in its own setting is also planned.