JARS v50n1 - Unusual Court Case Leads to Unusual Plant

Unusual Court Case Leads to Unusual Plant
Charles Hunter
Marietta, Georgia

Sometimes you find the best things when you aren't really looking. I have been looking for native plants, particularly native azaleas and rhododendrons, in the wild ever since I caught the disease in the early '80s after discovering a lowland Rhododendron calendulaceum next to the creek in the back yard of what is now my ex-wife's home in Cobb County, Ga. Well, I look on weekends when I can. During the week, I represent Georgia folks in court. Several years ago, a young divorcee hired me to defend her on a charge of first degree arson in Forsyth County, north of Atlanta. The prosecution contended that my client had burned down her country home for the insurance money. She vehemently denied it and explained to the sheriff's deputies that intruders had broken into her home, tied her up, attempted to assault her and started the fire. She said she was able to untie herself and escape the burning home and run to her neighbor's house with the rope still bound to one wrist. The district attorney took the position that she staged everything. Quite a bizarre case! Anyhow, I knew that there wasn't going to be any plea bargaining but that a jury would hear this one.

Since this case was going to trial, I thought that a visit to the burned out home place was in order. It was a rugged A-frame cabin on a large wooded of rural land west of the town of Cumming that had been awarded to my client in her divorce. Because she and her former husband had kept horses on the property, they had "bush-hogged" all the shrubbery and vegetation to the ground several years before. After the divorce, the horses were sold and the land began to return to its natural state. The "shrubbery" was primarily a stand of Rhododendron canescens most abundant native azalea in Georgia, and it was all in full bloom at the time of the visit.

My friend Jane Tuttle, who is also an Azalea Chapter member, went with me to the scene of the alleged crime. After inspecting the house and taking photographs, Jane and I decided to check out the R. canescens . Jane found an unusual one not 50 feet behind the house. With the client's consent, we took a rooted piece of it.

The floral truss of this plant is somewhat smaller than that of the normal azalea. The petals are quite narrow and strap-like and are cut all the way down so that there is no flower tube at all. Each flower has a pistil but no stamens. (Jane calls it an "all woman flower"). It has little or no fragrance, and it's anybody's guess whether pollen from a normal plant could produce seed in this one - it hasn't so far.

R. canescens with narrow petals and 
no stamens
R. canescens with narrow petals and no stamens.
Photo by Charles Hunter

Clarence Towe of Walhalla, S.C. (who evidently suffers from the same wild plant disease that I do), knows of similar variations in other native azalea species, and he believes that this could be classified as R. canescens "var. polypetala." He is aware of variations with petals split to the base in R. calendulaceum (1), R. flammeum , R. atlanticum , R. bakeri , R. arborescens and R. periclymenoides . He hasn't ever heard of another "polypetala" form of R. canescens and observes that the petals on this plant are much narrower than those on the known "polypetalas" in other natives.

Richard Jaynes, in his book on laurels, documented several variant forms of the mountain laurel Kalmia latifolia , including "polypetala" forms with deeply divided narrow to broad petals on a plant which normally has a flower shaped rather like a dish (2).

The leaves and general plant structure of this variant azalea appear identical to those of the typical Piedmont azalea. It took longer than expected to get the material from the wild to bloom, but I think that this might have been because I planted it in a location that was a little too shady. I have no reason to believe that this plant is of hybrid origin, as I saw no hybrids nor other azalea species anywhere in the vicinity.

I have always been a big fan of R. canescens , which normally has quite beautiful and fragrant flowers. A happy and healthy plant can produce multiple buds on a branch tip that burst into a gorgeous ball truss in early spring. Some native azalea fanciers consider it too common and ordinary, preferring to grow species such as the late blooming R. prunifolium , which is scarce in the wild. While I can't say that this variety is more desirable than the normal plant, the bloom has a very feathery appearance that is quite unlike any rhododendron I have ever seen, and it is certainly unique.

Oh, and my client was found "not guilty."

Charles Hunter, a member of the Azalea Chapter, authored an article on Rhododendron minus var. chapmanii in the Summer 1991 issue of the Journal.

1.  Towe, C. Corolla variations in the flame azalea. J. Amer. Rhod. Soc. 43:103-104; 1989.

2.  Jaynes, R. Kalmia, the laurel book. Portland: Timber Press; 1988.