Sandlapper Society

Saving the Heirloom Azaleas

The oldest public garden in America is working to rescue its original “Southern belles”

by Todd Steadman • photo courtesy of Magnolia Gardens

Those familiar with the beautiful gardens and plantations of the Lowcountry have no doubt heard of— if not visited— Magnolia Gardens. Located about 10 miles outside of Charleston on the Ashley River, it is the oldest public garden in America, having opened in the early 1870s.

What most won’t know is the significant work taking place behind the scenes under the watchful eyes of Tom Johnson, director of Gardens, and Miles Beach, director of Collections. Together they, and a host of volunteers, are working hard to preserve the botanical heritage of America with an emphasis on pre-1900s azaleas and camellias.

These two genera of plants— perhaps as much as any two genera of plants— embody the Southern landscape. They even sound Southern, rolling off the tongue like syrup. But, as iconic as they are, alike much of our beloved South, the origin of these belles is from afar. Of course there is always dispute in these matters; however, it is generally accepted that the camellia we know best (Camellia japonica) was mistakenly included in a shipment of Camellia sinensis (from which tea is made) in a shipment from Asia to Great Britain. The colorful and hardy plant soon became a darling of European gardens and found its way to America in the early 1800s.

In similar fashion, azaleas (other than the few native azaleas we have) also came from Asia and flourished in Europe where they were hybridized and exalted. In 1848 the Drayton family (who owned Magnolia Gardens— then called “Magnolia on the Ashley”) purchased the first azaleas to be grown in America and from there they have spread coast-to-coast.

Over the years, much work has been done to breed showy and dependable camellias and azaleas for the landscape. But with such emphasis on “new and improved,” many wonderful cultivars of azaleas and camellias have been all but forgotten.

Enter the team at Magnolia Gardens.

Their plan is simple: locate unique species of azaleas and camellias, take cuttings, then grow the plants at Magnolia Gardens. Plants will also be shared with other gardens and some will be made available to the public via plant sales at Magnolia Gardens and elsewhere.

The devil, as they say, is in the details. In May, a team went to Georgia to gather scions of native azaleas, which only have a narrow window of time for taking healthy cuttings.

The next big harvest will be a trip to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. in July. Conversations with botanists and “plant geeks” in France and Italy are taking place now. The great azalea rescue will be exhaustive and take many years. “We’re making some wonderful connections and finding some great plants that, to our knowledge, only exist in one location,” Johnson shares.

So, why, you may ask, is any of this important? For one, some amazing plants are being targeted. “We estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 unique species,” says Johnson. Liken this project to the effort to save and promote the heirloom vegetables in vogue. Many of these heirlooms are wonderful (and tasty), but were not favored by the trade for one reason or the other. The same can be said of the unique azaleas and camellias being sought out by the folks at Magnolia Gardens.

Another good reason to do this is practical. If there is only one known location where a given plant exists, there is a higher risk of permanent loss due to insects, disease or natural disaster. In many cases, once the plants are in hand and can be propagated, species will exist in multiple locations.

This project is not being done alone. Dozens of volunteers will assist in taking the cuttings in D.C. and about a hundred will root and pot the plants when they get back to Magnolia Gardens. The Garden has also secured two French interns to help with the program and assist in the efforts “across the pond.”

Perhaps most significant, in 2008, staff at Magnolia Gardens founded the Great Gardens of America Preservation Alliance. The alliance includes well-known gardens such as Bellingrath, Callaway and Longwood, and entire towns such as Natchez, MS and Edgefield, SC. “So far we have about 30 gardens or towns involved— and we’re growing,” Johnson tells us.

The Alliance has a stated mission “to locate, collect, promote and defend ancient azalea and camellia cultivars which are being lost daily due to large estates being developed into residential subdivisions and a lack of awareness by the public in general as to their value in the botanical world.”

Given the significance camellias and azaleas play in the South Carolina landscape, it is truly fitting that the folks at Magnolia Gardens are leading the charge to save some of the unsung Southern garden icons. 

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This article is sponsored by Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. 


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