JARS v55n4 - Fifty Years of Azalea Gardening at Callaway

Fifty Years of Azalea Gardening at Callaway
Hank Bruno
Pine Mountain, Georgia

Azaleas, native and exotic, have always been the essence of horticulture at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia. There are thousands of deciduous azaleas along the five-mile Scenic Drive demonstrating the toughness and beauty of this Southeastern native plant. The story is told that many of the early guests would drive through Callaway Gardens and see the "wild honeysuckle," as native azaleas were known in the South, and then ask the gate attendant for directions to "the gardens." In the public's opinion, a garden should have plants from foreign places not shrubs that were common in the woods back home. Rapacious development in the years since the garden opened in 1952 has greatly diminished our chances of seeing wild azaleas in their original habitats. Callaway Gardens' manmade landscape is a testament to the vision of founders Cason and Virginia Callaway and their desire to establish a sanctuary for the native plants of the Southeast.

It was the discovery of Rhododendron prunifolium on Callaway property that inspired interest in conservation of native plants even before the gardens were conceived. Blooming from late June until fall, the plumleaf azalea brightens the woodlands of west central Georgia and eastern Alabama. In colors from orange to brick red the flowers persist longest in shaded ravines away from the intense late summer sun. The architecture of the plant can be open and airy reaching heights of 15 feet (4.5 m) in the shade or more compact and densely budded in a setting with direct morning sun. Seedling propagation of this rare species was started early and on a large scale earning Mr. Callaway the Frances K. Hutchinson Medal for Conservation from the Garden Club of America in 1946. Mass plantings on the Scenic Drive, Mountain Creek Lake Trail and the Azalea Falls Trail are evidence of the success of those first efforts.

The Azalea Falls Trail was renamed the Wildflower Trail and in 2000 was dedicated as an affiliate of the Wildflower Research Center in Texas. It now bears the name Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Trail. In addition to native azalea species this trail harbors numerous endangered plants and interprets the contemporary threat of habitat destruction. It is estimated that development in Georgia over the last twenty years consumed 100-200 acres per day. Fortunately, this threat was recognized early, and the staff of the Gardens rescued many native azaleas under the direction of Mr. Fred Galle. Hired as the Director of Horticulture in 1953, he left the academic world for an active 30-year career in public horticulture. From a single industrial park site in Atlanta over 500 native azaleas were dug and moved to Callaway Gardens. To this day the founders' conservation ethic guides horticultural activity in the Gardens and in its association with other member institutions in the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance. In the 21st century rescued plants will continue to provide seed for those interested in maintaining the genetic diversity of native azalea species.

R. 'Galle's Choice'
'Galle's Choice' ( R. calendulaceum x R. alabamense )
Photo by Hank Bruno

Often blooming late in the summer with plumleaf azalea is the sweet or smooth Azalea, Rhododendron arborescens . Found along stream banks on Pine Mountain, it is native from Georgia to New York and Pennsylvania. The very fragrant flowers are usually white with prominent red stamens and style. The bloom time of R. arborescens at Callaway Gardens is significantly later than the same species in the mountains of North Carolina. At one time these late blooming plants were referred to as Azalea georgiana . In 1954, his second year on the job, Fred Galle attempted over 200 interspecific crosses of R. prunifolium with R. arborescens . The results of this hybridization, recorded in 1961 and 1962, were often pink flowers with a yellow throat and slight or no fragrance. True to his belief that only a superior plant should be named, no selections were derived from this work. Of the hundreds of crosses and thousands of seedlings created by Mr. Galle, only five names were registered. The variety 'Galle's Choice' is a mid-season yellow flower with white highlights resulting from the hybridization of R. calendulaceum x R. alabamense . An unregistered R. flammeum hybrid called 'Stoplight' was collected from an Atlanta estate prior to its bulldozing for a subdivision. Many of the progeny of Mr. Galle's native azalea crosses, as well as collected natural hybrids, grace the Gardens and are of interest for future breeding projects.

R. flammeum, Oconee azalea, late spring.
R. flammeum , Oconee azalea, late spring.
Photo by Hank Bruno

Overlook Garden, first planted in 1971, features a collection of hundreds of varieties of exotic, evergreen azaleas. Plants were donated from private collections, propagated from gardens and purchased from nurseries. The site near the picnic pavilion offers ideal conditions for azalea culture: a well drained, north facing slope, tall pines for year-round shade, and Mockingbird Lake, a source of water for irrigation and a reflective surface for the many brilliant colors. It took several years to clear away unwanted vegetation and add organic matter to the soil before azaleas could be planted. Exotic azaleas had first been used in the landscape near the golf course clubhouse (now the Gardens Restaurant). The Korean azalea, Rhododendron poukhanense , had been planted on the hybrid Rhododendron Trail in the late 1950s. With the freedom to work with plants from all over the world Mr. Galle was able to create a garden of distinction.

Overlook Gardens collection of Kurume and
Chisolm-Merritt hybrids.
Overlook Gardens collection of Kurume and Chisolm-Merritt hybrids.
Photo by Hank Bruno

The Overlook Garden has changed over the years and some of the impact of millions of visitors, browsing deer and a closing tree canopy is being addressed. A design review has been completed and offers improvements in accessibility and horticultural interest. Mature Japanese maples and hemlocks provide an impressive background for the riot of spring azalea color. Rejuvenation pruning of azaleas, new plantings and extensive bulb masses on the Overlook slope are the first phase of the renovation of this area. Recent azalea introductions, especially later blooming hybrids, make this a teaching garden for staff and guests alike.

The opportunity to build a new azalea garden presented itself in the mid-1990s as the first project of an extensive capital improvement master plan. Initially conceived as a renovation of Overlook Garden, a new site was chosen, thus preserving the original plantings. Thousands of cuttings were taken from that collection, primarily from Kurume and Chisolm-Merritt hybrids. Several years' effort were invested in verification of names and the growing on of 6000 plants representing 175 varieties in 17 hybrid groups. With a generous gift from Eli Callaway, Jr. (founder of Callaway Golf), selective clearing of the new site began in the summer of 1997. Construction through rain and planting through drought, the Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl was dedicated in March 1999. This garden blends the excellent plantsmanship and diversity of Overlook Garden with more refined design criteria. Exotic azaleas are carefully arranged to create color harmonies. Vistas across reflective water surfaces are combined with subtle details of ground covers and perennials. Crisp trail edges, walls, and garden structures are softened by new plantings and the careful preservation of old trees. Native azaleas add fragrance and an extended bloom season in a more natural setting of mature white oaks. In addition to species this section of the garden contains a large number of deciduous azalea hybrids and recent selections. Over time this garden will display azaleas in all their diversity in a landscape that will come to define the art and science of azalea culture.

Azaleas have played a major role at Callaway Gardens throughout its history. We invite the members of the American Rhododendron Society and the Azalea Society of America to join us for a garden tour as part of the annual meeting to be held in Atlanta April 17-21, 2002. Callaway Gardens opened its gates to the public in 1952 with the intention of providing its guests opportunities for recreation and environmental education to promote a better understanding of the living world. Mr. Callaway was quoted in the 1956 Saturday Evening Post to say, "If this Garden could inspire just one little country boy to go on to become another Benjamin Franklin, then you could push it into the sea. It would have been worth all it has cost." The legacy and landscape of Callaway Gardens have afforded inspiration to many over the years and will continue to do so for future generations.

Hank Bruno is Trail Manager at Callaway Gardens.