JARS v56n1 - The Aromi Azaleas

The Aromi Azaleas
Bill Finch
Mobile, Alabama

Eugene Aromi's garden started the way it was supposed to, just like the neighbors', thirty-five years ago in a Mobile, Alabama, suburb. He had a lot of lawn and a satisfactory row of white and pink azaleas - contractor grade Southern Indian azaleas, just the kind his neighbors had planted - along the front of the ranch-style, salmon-brick house.

But something went wrong: The azaleas got sick, and Dr. Aromi never recovered.

Two decades later, this corner of suburban Mobile has become a blooming laboratory of azaleas, azaleas Aromi has bred and developed himself. His deciduous azalea hybrids - with an ample measure of hot-climate native Southern blood - are now blooming in gardens across the South and are featured selections in a number of specialty garden catalogs. And by many accounts, his evergreen and deciduous breeding program has produced some of the 20th century's most spectacular rhododendron cultivars for warm-temperate climates.

But Aromi acknowledges he knew no more about azaleas than his neighbors did when he moved into his new home in 1966. He was the new education professor at University of South Alabama with little interest in gardening.

Azaleas were de rigueur in Mobile, which had long billed itself as the Azalea City. But the azaleas planted by the builder at Aromi's new home turned anemic. He shopped around for advice, even checking out the only two books on azaleas then available at the public library, determined to find out what was wrong. Aromi was slowly becoming an expert on azaleas, but nothing he learned helped his plants.

Finally, someone suggested that homebuilders have a bad habit of burying construction waste around the foundation of the house. Aromi unearthed the beds and discovered piles of submerged plaster and other limey and chemical-laden debris.

Aromi learned his first important lesson about acid-loving azaleas. He dug out the debris, and the azaleas thrived. But in the process of nursing his own plants back to health, he had discovered a new world of rhododendrons. He was hooked for life.

In his reading, Aromi soon realized he could breed his own azalea cultivars. In 1969 he made his first azalea cross. Working with his wife, Jane, he tackled the evergreens - focusing on the Southern Indian azaleas, essentially southeast Asian azaleas which arrived in the South in the 19th century, via European and Northeastern U.S. florists. By the 1930s, Mobilians had adopted these warm climate azaleas as their own.

Aromi worked carefully over the years to introduce better cold tolerance, improved flower form and a richer palette of colors to these old Mobile standbys. In the last half of the 20th century, Aromi stood virtually alone in developing a systematic breeding program with the old Southern Indian cultivars for the Southeast.

Rather than using the standards as a starting point, Aromi chose rarer beauties like 'Pride of Prichard', hybridized by Mrs. Opal Petry in the 1950s, and 'Pink Champagne'*, developed by his friend James Thompson of the Orchard Nursery. These were mixed with hardier stock like 'Elsie Lee', 'Dream' and 'Aromi Overture'*.

The result was a stunning series of evergreens unlike anything seen here before. Fred Galle noted 'Red Ribbons'* and 'Shipley'* in his azalea magnum opus and Jim Darden included a photograph of 'Red Ribbons' in his Great American Azaleas. But Aromi had to take his new azaleas door-to-door looking for a home.

Unfortunately, there were few local wholesalers interested in expanding the selection of evergreen Southern Indians in the early 1970s. Wilson's 40 - generally small-flowered but relatively cold tolerant Kurumes - had finally inundated the retail garden shops and Ben Morrison had just ended his evergreen breeding program that dropped 454 new cultivars on the industry.

At the same time, nurseries across the country were trying to streamline their catalogs to meet the needs of the new mass markets. Southern wholesalers largely dumped the Southern Indians, looking to exploit more lucrative markets in the upper Atlantic and northeastern states beyond the range of even the most cold-hardy Southern Indian hybrids.

Reeling from changes in all directions, the nurseries told Aromi in no uncertain terms, "We don't need any more azaleas, thank you."

Frustrated, Aromi stashed his evergreen cultivars in the gardens of a few friends and fellow azaleas enthusiasts, and largely abandoned that breeding program.

But in the late '60s, Aromi also discovered the South's original azaleas - the deciduous azaleas known only as "honeysuckle bushes" by most of the locals. Aromi was introduced to the natives through an unlikely source, the Wayside garden catalog, which at that time was featuring Exbury hybrids. He was fascinated by the deciduous shrubs, which showed their large blooms to such fine effect on bare branches.

Aromi, the innocent adventurer, tried some of these in his Mobile garden. The delicate Exbury hybrids, bred to withstand England's cool climate, melted in South Alabama's relentless heat.

But from his reading and conversations with a growing circle of rhododendron compatriots, Aromi learned that Alabama had an unusually rich selection of native deciduous azaleas - some nine to eleven species, depending on who's counting.

So he embarked on yet another breeding program. His hope was to cross the beauty, vigor and heat-tolerance of the Southern native azaleas with the exceptionally large-flowered and varied Exbury hybrid azaleas.

In the early '70s, choice native azaleas were hard to come by, but fortunately, Aromi says, his work was discovered by John Giordano, one of Mobile's legendary plant collectors. Giordano and the late John Allen Smith, who developed Magnolia Nursery in Chunchula, Alabama, made sure Aromi had access to some of the best specimens of native azaleas from around the South. Aromi was also aware of the work of Tom Dodd Jr. in nearby Semmes, who was one of the first major wholesalers to develop a broad market for the Deep South's native azaleas.

Aromi made his first Exbury crosses with several Alabama natives - a vigorous yellow-flowered form of the Florida azalea ( Rhododendron austrinum ), the lemon-spotted white Alabama azalea ( R. alabamense ) and the blushing pink Piedmont azalea ( R. canescens ). Aromi says that the genetically potent austrinum , which now stands nearly 15 feet (4.5 m) tall at one corner of his house, has been the cornerstone of the breeding program.

Aromi says he wasn't sure whether it was "dumb luck or the hand of the Lord," but even those first generation crosses produced a number of outstanding azaleas - strong, free-blooming and deliciously fragrant like the natives, with exceptionally large flower buds and trusses, like the Exbury hybrids.

The best of those are now named and circulating in the nursery trade - rich yellows like 'Aromi Sunstruck' ( R. austrinum x 'White Swan' [Knap Hill]) and 'Aromi Sunrise' ('Hiawatha' x R. austrinum ), or the delicate ivory 'High Tide'* with its striking golden blotch, or the rich scarlet buds of 'Tipsy Tangerine'* which open to a color fan of orange.

Meanwhile, Aromi has continued with multi-generational crosses, mating his own hybrids to produce flowers that look as if the colorful blood of all the native azaleas is swirling through the blooms. Each year, stunning new hybrids are blooming for the first time on benches in back of his house.

The whole process is painstakingly traced in Aromi's stud books, a sort of family tree of his azalea crosses covering thirty years of work and stacked in notebooks 3 or 4 feet high. It is the kind of obsessive, meticulous work that seems to come naturally to the patient educator. Each cross can produce anywhere from one to 500 seedlings—fifty is about the average, according to Aromi—each of which must be grown out to full size before the breeder knows what's worth keeping. Hundreds of small azaleas, little more than twigs, are scattered in pots around Aromi's backyard, each marked with a code to indicate its parentage. It will be years before they bloom - usually three to ten years - though some crosses may not bloom for decades.

This spring, perhaps a hundred different varieties of azalea bloom will come and go within the narrow confines of Aromi's chain-link fence. Aromi admits that the neighbors "won't go in the backyard" to see them. Indeed, it is a startling sight; so much extravagant beauty packed into this little corner of the suburbs, surrounded by the neat lawns and drab, familiar shrubs Mobilians are wont to grow.

The latest cultivars seem to have broken free from their debt to the Exbury hybrids, and are more than simply heat tolerant imitations of the best European cultivars. They have a character all their own, proudly recalling the color-range, truss form and fragrance of the Southern natives. Aromi mixed Rhododendron prunifolium , R. viscosum (formerly R. serrulatum ), and R. arborescens with 'Rufus'* to create the enormous trusses of 'Aromi Glory Be'*. 'Red Whisk'* is a gentle blend of R. arborescens and R. cumberlandense (formerly R. bakeri ), a light lemon yellow with bright scarlet stamens.

To date Dr. Aromi has germinated 1,045 crosses, bloomed and typed 4,394 plants, and named 19 evergreens and 94 deciduous cultivars.

R. 'Amelia Rose'*
'Amelia Rose'*
Photo by Maarten van der Giessen

But the process of getting the plants into the trade has proved to be just as tedious and frustrating as Aromi's experience with the evergreens thirty years ago.

Hybrid crosses of deciduous azaleas that Aromi made in 1976 are just now becoming widely available. Along with the Confederate azalea series introduced by the Dodds of Semmes, many retailers now regard them as the best hybrid deciduous azaleas available for the Deep South.

In recent years, Aromi's on-going hybridization work with the deciduous azaleas has begun to attract a number of wholesalers, including Carolina Nurseries in South Carolina and van der Giessen Nursery in Alabama, which are now evaluating some of his best new selections.

Aromi's long-term work with the evergreen azaleas, his first love, has only recently piqued the interest of wholesale growers. Van der Giessen is working to get some of Aromi's finer evergreens in the trade, like the ruffled, saturated red hose-in-hose 'Red Ribbons' ('Giant Ruffles'* x 'Pride of Prichard') that caught Galle's eye, or the delicate lavender rose form of 'Michelle Lux'* ('Elsie Lee' x 'Red Ribbons'). This year Aromi has revisited his work from the '60s, naming five for his new quintuplet grandchildren, and for the first time in decades he has begun to pollinate evergreens again.

Aromi is hopeful that these fine evergreen crosses will finally get the attention they deserve, particularly now that a large number of Southern gardeners seem to be returning to their evergreen azalea "roots." Deep South cities like Mobile and Baton Rouge are putting new emphasis on the Southern Indians that made their communities famous fifty years ago, even as they're moving away from the less heat-tolerant Kurumes that dominated the nursery markets in the latter half of the 20th century.

Aromi's evergreens may be perfectly positioned to take advantage of this new trend. They have the large flower size and early bloom of the familiar Southern Indian standards, but improved bud hardiness, more compact form and a surprising array of flower forms and colors. With his hybrids the future of the Southern garden looks brighter.

* Name is not registered.

Bill Finch is Environment Editor and garden writer at the Mobile Register.