Get ready to be dazzled. Seemingly overnight azalea blossoms have popped open to herald the arrival of spring. And what more convenient way to be dazzled than to cruise the Tyler Azalea Trail.
Evergreen azaleas, the type that predominate the plantings on the Tyler Azalea Trail, originated in Asia where they have been cultivated for centuries. They were introduced to Europe and the U.S. in the 1800’s. Today, there are literally thousands of named varieties of azaleas, in many hybrid groups. The most definitive work on azaleas was written by Fred Galle, in his tome simply entitled ‘Azaleas’, published by Timber Press. This 500 page reference is mostly descriptions of over 6000 varieties of these marvelous plants with just a handful of photos.
Typically when we think of azaleas, we think early spring. But, not all azalea varieties open their blooms at this time of year. Many bloom later in April, some as late as May, and others will re-bloom in the summer and fall. So, your garden could have azaleas blooming for 8 or 9 months if you carefully chose the right varieties.
Many of the varieties which bloom during the Tyler Azalea Trail are of the Kurume and Southern Indian hybrid types. Kurume azaleas were brought to the United States in 1915 from Japan. Popular Kurume varieties include ‘Hinode Giri’ (red), ‘Hino Crimson’, ‘Coral Bells’ (pink), ‘Snow’ (white), ‘Flame’ (orange red), ‘Hershey’s Red’ (bright red). These evergreen plants typically are of small stature, growing from about 3 to 6 feet tall, with dense foliage and a dense, twiggy branch structure. In general, Kurume azaleas have a slow to moderate growth rate and bloom early to mid-season, depending on variety.
Southern Indian (also called Indica) varieties tend to be larger (from 6 to 12 feet tall), with larger leaves and large, showy, 2 to 3 inch flowers. Common varieties include ‘Formosa’ (rose purple), ‘Fielder’s White’, ‘George L. Taber’ (light pink), ‘Judge Solomon’ (pink), ‘Mrs. G. G. Gerbing’ (white), and ‘Pride of Mobile’ (deep rose pink).
‘Delaware Valley White’ is a popular white due to its characteristic of cleanly shedding its spent flowers. ‘Snow’ is another popular white variety whose faded brown blossoms tend to hang on for sometime after bloom is over. A very attractive mass planting of ‘Delaware Valley’ is in the Camellia Garden section of the Tyler Rose Garden near the parking area.
One of the newest hybrid groups of azaleas are the popular Encore varieties, bred to rebloom during the summer and fall after their initial spring bloom. All the varieties have “Autumn” in their name. A great place to view most of the 20+ Encore cultivars in an attractive setting is on the Tyler Junior College campus in the Ina Brundrett Azalea Garden, located between Jenkins Hall and the Wise Cultural Arts building. Autumn Starlite, a low-growing white Encore variety is currently putting on a show in the IDEA Garden in the Tyler Rose Garden.
Another group that is gaining in popularity is the deciduous azaleas. Unlike the evergreen azaleas which originated in Asia, most deciduous types are native to the United States. There are several species, with native ranges from the mid-Atlantic, south to northern Florida, and west to East Texas. Sometimes they are called bush or wild honeysuckle because the flowers have a similar trumpet-shape to honeysuckle, and are sweetly fragrant.
Deciduous azaleas are characterized by their upright, open branching growth habit, often reaching 15 or more feet tall, and many of these bloom in early spring before their leaves appear. There are many species, and even more hybrid varieties, with vibrant colors ranging from pale pink and red to eye-popping pumpkin orange, buttery yellow and two-toned mixes of various colors.
Another great place to see azaleas of all kinds, including a collection of native deciduous azaleas, is the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden, part of the Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) Mast Arboretum in Nacogdoches. It makes a nice day trip, and you won’t be disappointed.
For more on growing azaleas in East Texas, check out this article.