JARS v55n3 - James Harris and His Hybrid Azaleas

James Harris and His Hybrid Azaleas
Roger Duvall
Atlanta, Georgia

James Harris has been hybridizing evergreen azaleas for thirty years. He got his start working with fellow Georgians Ralph Pennington and Bruce Hancock. At about the same time, he became acquainted with the director of the U.S. National Arboretum, Henry Skinner, who also encouraged Harris in his work. According to those who know him best, Harris eats, sleeps and dreams evergreen azaleas. He has named about fifty of his hybrids, but, unfortunately, none of them have been registered. Fred Galle's Azaleas lists thirty-two Harris hybrids, and this does not include Harris's more recent plants. Harris has drawn from a broad palette of sources to produce his hybrids: Rhododendron kaempferi , R. oldhamii , R. nakaharae , R. poukhanense , the Satsukis, and the Gable, Glenn Dale and Back Acre hybrids.

The Harris hybrids are sadly too often overlooked by azalea growers. Given the choice between 'Coral Bells' (synonym of 'Kirin') and Harris's 'Gloria Still'* or between 'Hinodegiri' and Harris's 'Rain Fire'* many gardeners would choose the Harris hybrid, and our gardens, as a result, would be more interesting and more beautiful. I hope that readers of this article will make the effort to locate these plants and to popularize them in their gardening circles. What follows is a list that James Harris provided of his personal favorites.

Mr. Harris's hybridizing has gone through two phases and is now entering a third. The first phase, from 1970 until about 1985, has been documented in Azaleas and Jim Darden's Great American Azaleas (now out of print). Harris's objectives during this period were a cascading growth habit, unusually large blooms, and a high tolerance for hot, humid southern summers. Five of Harris's picks come from this period.

James Harris and his R. 'Harris' Holiday'
James Harris and his 'Harris' Holiday'* were
photographed on Mr. Harris' birthday, February 4.
Photo by Rober Duvall

'Pink Cascade'* ( R. nakaharae x 'Bunka') has 2-inch (5 cm) salmon blooms with a red blotch. This azalea has a trailing growth habit, making it excellent for hanging pots, containers or the tops of walls. Harris says that it is “limber, like English ivy.” It layers wherever it touches the ground, producing new plants for the gardener fortunate enough to have it. 'Pink Cascade' has been issued a 25-year patent in Europe and is in tissue culture there. Harris estimates that the Nicholas Gyomark nurseries have sold 250,000 plants. The pastel color, and the affinity for containers, have made it especially well loved there. 'Pink Cascade' is now grown worldwide, from Istanbul, Turkey, to Australia.

'Bruce Hancock'* (Azaleodendron: 'White Gumpo' x R. keiskei ). Named after Harris's friend, hybridizer Bruce Hancock, this azaleodendron also exhibits a cascading growth habit. In a pot, its branches will extend 4 feet (1 m) below the crown in five years. The blooms are large, 3½ inches (9 cm), white with a pink border.

'Harris' Fascination'* ('Grace Freeman No. 2' x 'Amagasa'). 'Harris' Fascination' is an upright plant, becoming 3½ feet (1 m) tall by 3½ feet (1 m) wide in nine years. The blooms are large, 4½ inches (11 cm), and striking, white in the center with a red border. The white center is clearly defined, giving the appearance of a bloom within the bloom. 'Harris' Fascination' was chosen to illustrate the title page of Great American Azaleas.

'Gloria Still'* ('Albert-Elisabeth' x 'Fedora'). The hose-in-hose blooms of 'Gloria Still' are white with pink variegation, 2 inches (5 cm) across. The blooms form large trusses, larger than most rhododendrons, and force easily, a virtue for the gardener who likes to start spring a little early (and who doesn't).

'Joan Garrett'* ('Bunka' x 'Target'). This is one of a group of ten azaleas named for members of the Ralph Pennington Chapter of the ASA (Azalea Society of America) in Anderson, South Carolina. 'Joan Garrett' boasts the largest blooms of the plants described here, as much as 6 inches (15 cm) across, salmon pink with a red blotch. The plant becomes 4 feet (1 m) wide by 3 feet (1 m) tall in nine years. Galle's Azaleas includes a picture of 'Joan Garrett.'

R. 'Joan Garrett'*
'Joan Garrett'*
Photo by James Harris

Harris's second phase, from 1985 to the present, might be called his “Red Period,” because his goals were to produce plants with good red blooms and the ability to withstand sub-zero winters. Harris's favorites include five reds from this period.

'Midnight Flare'* has the deepest, darkest red color (blood-red comes to mind) and is hardy to –10°F (-23°C). It is the most widely available of the reds and is finding its way now out of the specialty nurseries and into the mainstream, at least in the southeastern United States.

'Coronado Red'* produces bright red blooms. This is another of Harris's plants that produce blooms in ball trusses, good for attracting attention in the garden or in a flower show. It too is hardy to –10°F (-23°C).

'Rain Fire' is the best of Harris's reds for holding up in the heat and humidity. It blooms late and is hardy to –5°F (-20°C). It is a delicate, willow-leafed cultivar that explodes in an inferno of bright orange-red every spring.

'September Morn'* is named for its tendency to bloom during the period from August to December. Extreme cold will knock back the blooms, but as it warms up (and that is the nature of our southern winters) 'September Morn' will begin to bloom again. It is hardy to at least –15°F (-26°C) and blooms in the spring, too.

R. 'September Morn'*
'September Morn'*
Photo by James Harris

'J. Valentine'* is named for Harris's grandson Jared, whose birthday is February 14, Valentine's Day. In addition to its large (3-4 in, 8-10 cm) red blooms, 'J. Valentine' has outstanding foliage and plant habit. The plant is hardy to –10°F (-23°C).

R. 'J. Valentine'*
'J. Valentine'*
Photo by Joe Coleman

Harris, who remembers his own grandmother's interest in plants, has detected in his grandchildren a budding interest in his azalea hybrids. Their interest has spurred James into a new phase. He says he is doing more now than he has ever done. He is breeding bi-colors, primarily purple and white, and working for a long bloom period, at least four months.

At the moment, Harris has a new plant about which he is extremely excited. It is a cross between a seedling and the Encore azalea 'Autumn Embers', and its blooming period is unique. It does not begin to bloom until late October and then produces bright red blooms steadily through January if protected. The foliage is good, dark green. It is hardy enough to grow outdoors, but Harris believes it would be ideal for large indoor spaces, providing bloom through the winter. He intends to name this plant 'Harris' Holiday', because it blooms for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, and probably Valentine's Day. Harris, who has not lost a whit of the enthusiasm that pushed him into hybridizing in the first place, says he has “never seen anything like it.”

* Name is not registered.

Roger Duvall has been a member of the Azalea Chapter since 1988. He is webmaster for the Azalea Chapter home page on the Internet and maintains the 2002 Convention web page, too.