Evergreen Azaleas in the Puget Sound Region
A Personal Account
I have spent nearly 50 years growing azaleas and rhododendrons - a fascinating group of plants. However, as a collector one's perspective becomes somewhat warped as enthusiasm overcomes reason. Nevertheless, I have been asked to share my experiences, or rather trials, with evergreen azaleas in this Puget Sound region.
A glance at the map of Western Washington reveals this as a fairly extensive area encompassing the most populous part of the state, starting with Bellingham in the north near the Canadian border to the south to Olympia, the state capital. This entire region is tempered by salt water and only moderate variations in elevation near the shoreline. To assess this in growing terms is difficult. Soil types, micro-climates, and colder inland valleys all add up to make many variables. The adaptation of the genus Rhododendron is remarkable when considering our typical dry summers and wet winters that contrast sharply with conditions in Asian countries, the natural home of the bulk of the world's rhododendrons.
My beginnings started in the Yakima valley of eastern Washington. Occasional trips to Seattle piqued my interest in lavish displays of color at peak rhododendron blooming time in April and May. A little later on at the Washington Park Arboretum I gathered some seed of Rhododendron mucronulatum . This effort resulted in many seedlings, even in the trying climate of eastern Washington.
A visit to Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland, Oregon, encouraged me to join the ARS as a non-chapter member. Shortly thereafter a small order was sent to Alanwold Nursery in Pennsylvania for rooted cuttings of evergreen azaleas. Later followed small orders to Tingle Nursery in Pittsville, Maryland, and Koster Nursery in Bridgeton, New Jersey. These cuttings consisted mostly of Gable and R. kaempferi azaleas. Later still I rooted cuttings from some Arnoldiana azaleas obtained from Mountain Meadow Nursery in Monroe, Washington. A simple cold frame shaded with coarse burlap and no bottom heat sufficed. Yakima summers are hot and this resulted in rapid rooting. Now that really started the ball rolling! Subsequently a lath shade house was built that sheltered several hundred azaleas and some hardy rhodies. Also at this time I was raising a goodly numbers of Mollis azaleas from seed.
Eventually the spell of the superior rhodie climate of Western Washington prevailed. Our move to the extreme upper Puyallup valley took place in December 1957 - certainly a drastic but exciting change. This prompted my joining the Tacoma Chapter of the ARS in January.
I believe my initial attraction to evergreen azaleas was due not alone to prodigious bloom. Propensity to bloom, even as rooted cuttings, ease of propagation, and relatively low cost to purchase were reasons enough.
In the landscape evergreen azaleas have been supreme whether using with larger rhododendrons or other compatible broad leafs in the background. Azaleas are forgiving when it comes to fertilizer, although they protest mightily when grown in containers and over fed. How well I know! Slow release kinds have been invaluable in container growing. I have used liquid formulations of different strengths with good results. Like many of you, experimenting with fertilizers and also soil mixes has been fun but not necessarily conclusive. Stick with what works for you. Azaleas once well established in the ground have done remarkably well in heavy shade under flowering trees, notably dogwoods.
The main thrust of this article will be based on my evaluation of over 500 evergreen azalea clones. The book Azaleas by Fred Galle has been invaluable as has Hybrids and Hybridizers compiled from the experience of Eastern hybridizers. Great American Azaleas by Jim Darden is also highly recommended and particularly noted for profuse photos throughout. Initially Azaleas by Harold Hume was my earliest source, followed by Fred Lee's The Azalea Book . My experience has certainly been minuscule when compared to the over 6,000 cultivars listed in Galle's book. At the outset, my list with few exceptions does not embrace species nor deciduous varieties. Past articles in the Journal have adequately addressed these plants. On a small place the room it takes to try to grow everything is certainly intimidating. My fondness toward Exbury azaleas is evidenced by several old plants I still have. Nor am I dwelling too much on propagation, soils, fertilizing, pest control, and related topics, as these have been well covered by those more knowledgeable growers. Moving to my present location in the north end of Tacoma in 1972 really accelerated my interest in collecting but always within the constraints of limited space. The following descriptions, although based on Galle's book Azaleas , are my own simplified perceptions of color, habit, and bloom times. I know many will take exception, but there are no conclusions when evaluating these plants, agreed? Evaluations are based on plants that have been in the ground at least 8 to 10 years. Some exceed 25 years in age. Some plants have been continuously in containers for over 10 years. In this location in view of Puget Sound the thermometer has never, in my experience, dipped below zero degrees Fahrenheit. The colder inland valleys do exceed that by 10 degrees or more. This area may never attain the degree of success with evergreen azaleas as has the Eastern seaboard. Even here in this great rhododendron climate many people have given up on evergreen azaleas, especially after many replantings. Not surprisingly those in colder inland valleys and on exposed hilltops have had problems as have those with sites with wet soils that contribute to root rot. These problems also plague many container specialists. The enthusiast with only a few plants in containers all too often will neglect watering or over feed. This happens often. Help with problem solving is available in specialty nursery outlets. They usually have greater diversity in variety selection. Most of us have observed huge quantities of azaleas pouring into large discount chain stores every spring. The quantities are there, but the selection is usually limited. Alas, all too often the employees are not trained in the proper care. Good luck and happy hunting to all that are bitten by the "azalea bug."
The author's garden in Tacoma, Washington.
Photo by Orris Thompson
Evergreen Azalea Groups
Assigning plants in their proper grouping has not been difficult. Picking out the "best" is another story. At present I will have to live with these submissions. It goes without saying that the selections are also based on year-round appearance and dependability.
AMOENA. Apparently only two cultivars are available. They have proved to be very hardy and quite compact. The purple cultivar is 10 feet wide and 30 inches tall in 20 years. The red cultivar is equally good, but it does sport purple in most seasons.
ARNOLDIANA. These super hardies are among my earliest acquisitions. As the name suggests they originated at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Originally I had three color cultivars. At present there is just a good pink. Their taller habit would constitute a fine background. You will not go wrong with any of these, if you can find them.
Photo by Orris Thompson
GABLE. Joseph Gable's hybrids were the first to really ignite my interest. I actually met this early pioneer hybridizer at an international rhododendron conference in Portland, Oregon. He was duly honored as well as being one of the speakers. I would like to include more of his hybrids, but space limits that. 'Campfire' has been among the best of the deep reds. 'Billy' is low and spreading. 'Caroline Gable' is readily found at most nurseries. The soft pink of 'Cameo' and the very good grower 'Herbert' are unfailing. 'James Gable' is an excellent red but in essence a slower growing 'Campfire'. 'Lorna' is much like 'Rosebud', which is so well known and available everywhere. 'Louise Gable' is a nice salmon pink that fades badly in full sun. 'Mildred Mae' is valuable for earliness, although it is semi-deciduous. 'Polaris' is about the earliest white and one of the best. The ever popular 'Purple Splendor' is slightly earlier and a bit better in color than 'Herbert'. Both are readily available. 'Rose Greeley' is a good mid-season white. 'Springtime' is early, taller in habit. 'Stewartstonian' is early, outstandingly hardy. With the orange-red color, it needs shade. This does not imply that most evergreen azaleas cannot be happy in full sun. It simply means that so many of the pastels and orange shades do fade badly in full exposures.
Photo by Orris Thompson
GLENN DALE. This famous group hybridized by Ben Morrison is really extensive. About the earliest is 'Anchorite'. This one puts on a good pink show in early to mid April. My 25-year-old plant measures 30 inches tall and 6 feet wide. 'Arcadia' is a nice light red. 'Bishop' is quite compact. 'Buccaneer' is good but fades severely. 'Dawning', 'Dragon' and 'Driven Snow' are good doers. 'Everest' is mostly satisfactory, although suffers from bud damage in protracted cold. 'Kenwood' with large soft pink flowers usually rates second looks. 'Gaiety' is a long-time favorite among early landscapers and nurserymen in this area. 'Martha Hitchcock' is a good grower, although sometimes a bit sparse in bloom. The following are recommended: 'Melanie', 'Moonbeam', 'Sagittarius', 'Snowscape', 'Swansong', and 'Treasure'. Now to wrap up the Glenn Dales, I am including 'Zulu', an extremely fast grower, although low spreading and semi-deciduous. In an equal time frame it exceeded a nearby plant of 'Treasure' three times over. Almost a curiosity.
GIRARD. The Girard Nursery in Ohio developed these very hardy azaleas that rate very high on my list. All of them are rated sub-zero in hardiness. This should make them fill a real need for problem areas. They are: 'Chiara', an intensive deep pink; 'Girard's Fuchsia', for earliness in a distinctively different shade; 'Girard's Hotshot', an intense orange-red, fades badly; 'Jeremiah', an excellent ruffled pink; 'Pleasant White', one of the best whites in all the groups; 'Girard's Scarlet', in the same category as 'Hotshot'; 'Girard's Unsurpassable'* says it all in its name.
'Girard's Chiara' and 'Girard's Unsurpassable'
Photo by Orris Thompson
GRISWOLD. Griswold Nursery in Kirkland, Washington, has introduced several good ones. I only have two that have been around for the required time. 'Dhabi' is compact and a slow grower. 'Pamela Malland' is a real beauty and quite vigorous.
GREENWOOD. These hail from Oregon. At one time I had over 50 different plants. Well over 100 have been introduced. There are some especially fine reds that include 'Blazon', 'Sherry' and 'Su-Lin'. Try to obtain 'Can Can', 'Cathy Lynn', 'Pink Cloud'* and 'Tara'*. 'Torchlight' is a good doer.
Photo by Orris Thompson
HARRIS. Originating in Georgia, the following have been good performers: 'Bryan Harris'*, 'Frosted Orange'*, 'Joan Garrett'*, 'Rivermist'*, and 'Pride of Lawrencevilie'*. 'Fascination'* is a real knockout, although not the best grower it is worth trying. 'Miss Suzie'* is a great early red.
Photo by Orris Thompson
KIUSIANUM. The species R. kiusianum from Japan has been a great performer and a particular favorite in the Northwest. Hardiness and compactness have characterized all the forms and most of the hybrids. I am quite fond of 'Album'*, a white that has been trouble-free in a large tub for over 10 years. Equally as good are several pink forms (I do not have names). The blooms are small but oh so prolific. Two cultivars that have been outstanding are 'Good Times'* and 'Komo-kulshan'*.
KEHR. Developed by Dr. August Kehr, 'Anna Kehr' is a showy double. 'Great Expectations' and 'White Rosebud' are popular and remain good sellers.
KURUME. This compact group is comprised of many winners most valuable to "kick off" the season. 'Ho-o' (syn. 'Apple Blossom'), taller in habit in a large soft pink, is very pleasing. 'Christina'* is a clear light red. 'Kirin' (syn. 'Coral Bells') is an early, very compact hose in hose. 'Cherry Ripe' is more upright. Extremely common and the most popular of the early reds is 'Hino-crimson'. Not as easily found anymore is the much older forerunner, 'Hinodegiri'. I have run across some specimens more than 50 years old. 'Hatsu-giri' is a very early and compact rose-purple. 'Hinomayo' at over 20 years in the ground is a globular 30 inches by 30 inches. It is really an eye-catching early one. Slightly later on the scene is 'Hahn's Red', 'Little Beauty' and 'Mother's Day'. 'Red Progress' is similar to 'Hinodegiri', only larger in all aspects.
LINWOOD. Although I have not tried too many of this fine Eastern group, mention must be given to 'Hardy Gardenia'*, a showy white. The most vigorous is 'Linwood Pink Giant'. 'Doctor Franklin West' has not been the best doer, but I still have it. Not on the list (see Table) is 'Doctor Thomas McMillan'. I have only had this one about five years, bit it does look like a winner.
MAURITSEN. In this region, Kent Nursery had developed some nice hybrids using 'Ward's Ruby' as a parent. Happily the intense red has carried through. Some of these are 'Daredevil', 'Morning Fire', 'Red Ryder', and 'Thunderball'. There are others; however, these have survived best. Somewhat slower growth does not detract in the least. Likely they are only borderline hardy in cold areas.
NORTH TISBURY. Late to bloom in shades of red characterize this low growing group. The following are all good: 'Alexander', 'Michael Hill', 'Pink Pancake', 'Red Fountain' and 'Wintergreen'.
ROBIN HILL. 'Betty Anne Voss' looks like a real winner. 'Betty Layman' and 'Conversation Piece' have been consistent. 'Early Beni' is a distinctive orange and does need shade. 'Eliza Scott', 'Gwenda', 'Sir Robert' and 'Whitehead' are late. Not listed is 'Nancy of Robinhill'. Good specimens are seen but I have had trouble with this one.
SHAMMARELLO. Early to appear in a different lavender shade is 'Elsie Lee'. 'Helen Curtis' is tops in a hardy white. 'Hino Pink' is a distinctive early pink. 'Hino-white' is slightly later. Finally there is 'Red Red' in a color the name implies.
Photo by Orris Thompson
SATSUKI. This is a large group and one I have barely touched on. 'Beni-kirishima' is quite late as is true of so many of this highly variable group. 'Chinzan' is very compact with large blooms in contrast to diminutive leaves. 'Eikan' with its large flowers commands attention. 'Gumpo' is old and well known. 'Higasa' is best known for very large flowers, 'Issho-no-haru' and 'Kusudama' are really stunning. 'Kazan' (syn. 'Rukizan') is the most diminutive of all and attractive for its tiny heart-shaped leaves. Finally, 'Shinnyo-no-tsuki' is probably best known of all the early introductions of Satsukis.
SHERWOOD. 'Sherwood Cerise', 'Sherwood Orchid', and 'Sherwood Red' belong in the Kurume group. They were introduced by the Sherwood Nursery in Oregon. The red cultivar is the earliest - compact, a striking orange-red and certain to fade in sunny spots. The other two are trouble-free.
Photo by Orris Thompson
VUYKIANA. 'Vuyk's Rosyred' and 'Vuyk's Scarlet' have been popular here. The scarlet cultivar is the best known and the most available.
A selection of evergreen azaleas from the author's collection.
Photo by Orris Thompson
|Table 1. Evergreen azaleas for the Puget Sound region.|
|Variety||Color||Habit||Bloom time (nursery source)|
|'Alexander'||Bright salmon-red||Low, spreading||Late|
|'Amoenum'||Purple hose in hose||Low, spreading||Early|
|'Anna Kehr'||Deep rose double||Broad, upright||Early mid, season|
|'Aphrodite'||Salmon-pink||Spreading||Late, mid season|
|'Arabesk'*||Vivid red||Compact||Mid season|
|'Arcadia'||Deep pink||Erect, spreading||Mid season|
|'Beni-kirishima'||Orange-red double||Broad, spreading||Late|
|'Betty Anne Voss'||Purple-pink||Low, spreading||Mid season|
|'Betty Layman'||Deep pink||Low, spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Billy'||Bright pink||Low, spreading||Early|
|'Bishop'||Rose-pink||Upright, spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Blazon'||Red||Upright||Early, mid season|
|'Blue Danube'||Blue-violet||Upright, spreading||Mid Season|
|'Bryan Harris'*||Light pink||Compact||Mid Season (from Harris 1983)|
|'Cameo'||Shell pink hose in hose||Broad, spreading||Late, mid season|
|'Campfire'||Red hose in hose||Spreading||Mid season|
|'Caroline Gable'||Red (deep pink)||Upright, spreading||Mid season|
|'Can Can'||Purple-red||Compact||Mid season|
|'Cathy Lynn'||Purple-pink double||Upright||Late, mid season|
|'Cherry Ripe'||Rose-red hose in hose||Low, compact||Mid season|
|'Christina'*||Light red||Erect, spreading||Early, mid season ('Florida' x 'Louise Gable' 1983)|
|'Cloud Cap'||White||Low, spreading||Mid season|
|'Conversation Piece'||Light pink||Low, spreading||Late, midseason|
|'Coral Redwings'||Coral-red||Compact||Early, mid season|
|'Corsage'||Lavender, fragrant||Low, spreading||Mid season|
|'Daredevil'||Light red||Slow growing||Early|
|'Dear Max'*||Orange-red||Spreading||Early, mid season (Hager 1987)|
|'Dawning'||Lavender-pink||Spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Delaware Valley White'||White||Spreading||Mid season|
|'Dhabi'||Purple||Broad, rounded||Mid season|
|'Double Beauty'||Pink hose in hose||Low, fast grower||Early, mid season|
|'Dragon'||Rose-red||Dense, twiggy||Mid season|
|'Driven Snow'||White||Spreading||Mid season|
|'Early Beni'||Scarlet double||Semi dwarf||Early, mid season|
|'Edith Henderson'*||Salmon-pink||Fast grower||Midseason (Harris 1983)|
|'Eikan'||White, variations||Spreading||Late, mid season|
|'Eliza Scott'||Lavender-pink||Upright||Late, mid season|
|'Elsie Lee'||Lavender semi double||Semi dwarf||Late, mid season|
|'Emily'*||Red||Compact||Early, mid season (Blaauw's 1983)|
|'Everest'||White||Spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Fascination'||Red, white border||Low, spreading||Late, mid season|
|'Favorite'||Salmon hose in hose||Erect||Early, mid season|
|'Flame Creeper'||Orange-red||Very low spreading||Late, mid season|
|'Frosted Orange'*||White, orange border||Compact||Very late (Harris 1983)|
|'Gaiety'||Pink||Erect, spreading||Mid season|
|'Garda Joy'||Salmon semi double||Low, spreading||Late, mid season|
|'Genie Magic'||Rose hose in hose||Compact||Early|
|'Girard's Fuchsia'||Reddish purple||Compact||Early, mid season|
|'Girard's Hot Shot'||Orange-red||Compact||Mid season|
|'Girard's Purple'||Reddish purple||Spreading||Mid season|
|'Girard's Rose'||Deep pink||Compact||Early, mid season|
|'Girard's Unsurpassable'*||Red||Spreading||Mid season (Girard's 1983)|
|'Great Expectations'||Reddish orange||Slow growing, low||Mid season|
|'Greenwood Rosy-Red'||Reddish purple double||Low, upright||Early, mid season|
|'Glamour'||Rose-red||Erect, broad||Late, mid season|
|'Good Times'||Pink hose in hose||Compact||Early|
|'Greeting'||Coral-rose||Broad, spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Gumpo Pink'||Pink||Low, compact||Late|
|'Gumpo White'||White||Low, compact||Late|
|'Gwenda'||Pale pink||Broad, spreading||Late|
|'Hahn's Red'*||Bright red||Low, spreading||Mid season (Hinkle 1979)|
|'Hardy Gardenia'*||White||Slow, spreading||Mid season (unknown 1979)|
|'Helen'*||Deep purple||Upright, fast grower||Mid season (local 1982)|
|'Helen Curtis'||White, semi double||Low spreading||Mid season|
|'Higasa'||Purplish pink||Upright, fast grower||Late, mid season|
|'Hino Pink'||Pink||Low, compact||Early|
|'Hinodegiri'||Rose-red||Low, spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Holland Red'*||Red||Wide, spreading||Mid season (obtained as 'Holland' 1986)|
|'Herbert'||Reddish violet||Low, spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Hershey's Pink'*||Clear pink||Low, spreading||Mid season (Wells Medina 1981)|
|'Ima-shojo'||Red||Compact||Early (commonly sold as 'Christmas Cheer')|
|'Issho-no-haru'||White, pink blotch||Low, spreading||Late|
|'James Gable'||Dark red||Slow grower||Early, mid season|
|'Jeremiah'||Deep pink||Semi dwarf||Mid season|
|'Johanna'||Red||Moderate, spreading||Mid season|
|'Karen'*||Purple||Rounded||Early (Haas 1985)|
|'Katie'||Purplish red||Compact||Mid season|
|'Kenwood'||Strong pink||Spreading||Early, mid season|
|'King Oluf'||Pink||Tall, wide spreading||Early|
|'Kirin'||Pink hose in hose||Low, spreading||Early, mid season|
|kiusianum forms||Pink, white||Slow, compact||Early mid season|
|'Komo-kulshan'*||Pink||Compact||Mid season (local)|
|'Kusudama'||Pale pink, variation||Moderate||Late|
|'Lady Robin'||White, pink stripes||Broad, semi dwarf||Late|
|'Linda'*||Pastel pink||Low, compact||Late (local, sport of 'Eikan' 1981)|
|'Linwood Pink Giant'||Pink hose in hose||Rounded||Mid season|
|'Little Beauty'||Pink hose in hose||Compact||Early|
|'Lorna'||Pink double||Slow growing||Mid season|
|'Louise Gable'||White, ruffled||Broad spreading||Late, mid season (Hager 1985)|
|'Lozenge'*||Deep pink hose in hose||Tall, upright||Mid season|
|'Macranthum'*||Pink||Low, spreading||Late (local, sold as 'Micrantha')|
|'Martha Hitchcock'||White, purple margin||Spreading||Mid season|
|'Melanie'||Rose-pink, light red||Moderate||Early|
|'Michael Hill'||Pink||Dwarf, spreading||Late|
|'Mildred Mae'||Reddish purple||Low||Early, mid season|
|'Miss Suzie'*||Bright red hose in hose||Compact||Early (Harris1982)|
|'Mona Lisa'||Pink double||Compact||Mid season|
|'Mother's Day'||Dark red, semi double||Low, spreading||Late, mid season|
|'Nancy'*||Salmon-pink||Upright, spreading||Early (J. Vermeulan 1950s)|
|'Norma'||Pink||Upright||Early, mid season|
|'Nico'*||Red||Compact||Mid season (local 1986)|
|'Nyohozan'*||Pink||Slow, compact||Late (local 1988)|
|'Pamela Malland'||Rose||Low, spreading||Mid season (Griswold)|
|'Pearl Bradford'||Pink||Slow, spreading||Late|
|sport from' Pearl Bradford'||Pink||Dwarf||Late|
|'Peggy Ann Rodino'||White, pink edge||Compact||Mid season|
|'Pink Cloud'*||Purplish pink||Compact||Late, mid season|
|'Pink Pancake'||Pink, frilled||Low, mounding||Late|
|'Pink Profusion'||Pink||Compact||Mid season|
|'Polaris'||White, semi double||Compact||Early|
|'Pride of Lawrenceville'*||Pink, red border||Wide, spreading||Late, mid season|
|'Printemps'||Salmon-pink||Upright, spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Purple Splendor'||Purple fringed||Upright, spreading||Mid season|
|'Red Fountain'||Orange-red||Slow, compact||Late|
|'Red Progress'||Rose-red||Low, spreading||Early|
|'Refrain'||White, pink edge||Medium||Early|
|'Rivermist'||Light orchid||Compact||Mid season|
|'Roberta'||Deep pink double||Medium||Mid season|
|'Rosebud'||Pink double||Low, spreading||Mid season|
|'Rose Greeley'||White hose in hose||Low, spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Rosea Flora'*||Salmon-red very double||Low, spreading||Late|
|'Royal Robe'||Reddish purple||Compact||Late, mid season|
|'Sakuragata'||White, salmon margin||Compact||Late|
|'Sherry'||Cardinal red||Broad, spreading||Early|
|'Sherwood Cerise'||Purplish red||Early, mid season|
|'Sherwood Orchid'||Reddish purple||Early|
|'Sherwood Red'||Vivid orange-red||Compact||Early|
|'Shinnyo-no-tsuki'||White, red margins||Low, spreading||Late|
|'Silver Sword'||Red||Low, upright||Early|
|'Sir Robert'||White, rose border||Semi dwarf, compact||Late|
|'Shirley Jean North'*||Salmon-red||Low creeper||Late (Gable, named at Griswold Nursery)|
|'Springtime'||Yellowish pink||Tall, semi double||Early|
|'Su-Lin'||Cardinal red||Medium||Mid season|
|'Swansong'||White||Dense, twiggy||Mid season|
|'Tara'*||Lavender-pink||Compact||Mid season (local 1982 'Helen Close' x 'Glamour')|
|'Treasure'||White||Upright, spreading||Early, mid season|
|'Torchlight'||Rose-red hose in hose||Compact||Late, mid season|
|'Twenty Grand'||Violet-red double||Compact||Early, mid season|
|'Vuyk's Rosyred'||Rose-pink||Low, spreading||Mid season|
|'Vuyk's Scarlet'||Red||Compact||Mid season|
|'Virginia Princess'*||Pink||Upright, spreading||Mid season (Hager, G. Ring hybrid)|
|'Whitehead'||White||Upright, spreading||Mid season|
|'White Rosebud'||White double||Low, spreading||Mid season|
|'Zulu'||Purplish red||Tall, spreading||Early|
|yedoense var. poukhanense||Red-violet||Low, spreading||Early, mid season|
* Name is not registered.
Orris Thompson has been a member of the ARS since 1953. He has worked for the Tacoma Metropolitan Park District, retiring in 1980, and for several nurseries. He visited India in 1974 with Britt Smith and a group of 26 to see rhododendrons in the wild. He also began his own rhododendron nursery, specializing in evergreen azaleas.