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Who doesn’t love a centennial celebration? This is the 100-year anniversary of the
famous plant explorer E. H. Wilson’s 1918 trip to Japan, where he selected and introduced
(in 1919) his famous list of Wilson’s 50 azaleas. While these showy, winter hardy
azaleas were not the first azaleas introduced into the United States, they were the
first cold hardy evergreen selections that could be grown north of the Mason-Dixon
The original Kurume azaleas are a group of compact, relatively slow growing evergreen
azaleas with relatively small flowers that were developed (or collected) by Japanese
nurserymen from the mountains of Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu. Wilson first
became aware of the azaleas when he visited Japan in 1914 and 1917. He found that
they had been treasured by the Japanese people for use as bonsai or highly pruned
— often in the shape of an umbrella — potted specimens. In his time, there were said
to be 250 named clones derived from four species of evergreen azaleas native to the
volcanic mountains of the region.
Wilson introduced his 50 clones, wrote a book on azaleas and promoted them to the
garden elite of the country, but he was not really responsible for getting them into
the hands of gardeners. In 1915, Kojiro Akashi of Kurume, Japan exhibited a dozen
azalea clones and a total of 30 plants in the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco
where he received a gold metal for his efforts.
The Domoto Brother’s Nursery in Hayward, California purchased some of these plants.
Two years later, Toichi Domoto’s father went to Kurume (Fukuoka prefecture), and signed
an agreement with local officials and nurserymen allowing the Domoto Brother’s Nursery
exclusive rights to import and sell Kurume azaleas in the United States.
The Domoto Brothers sold many of their imported azaleas to Cottage Garden Nursery
on Long Island, who in turn sold them to Bobbink and Atkins Nursery in New Jersey.
In the 1920’s the Bobbink and Atkins Nursery began one of the first azalea breeding
programs using the evergreen, cold-hardy clones. Domoto’s importation of azaleas stopped
in 1920 when plant quarantine procedures resulted in the loss of most of the shipment
of 5,000 plants, including a number of new clones. Then, as now, imports were a contested
political issue and, at least from my reading, it seems quarantine laws were as often
used as an economic lever as a means of stopping the spread of pests.
It was not long after the introduction of the Kurume azaleas into the United States
that now-famous plant breeders such as B. Y. Morrison started combining the cold hardy
Kurumes with the large-flowered, but less hardy Indica azaleas of the South. About
the same time, Joseph Gable began breeding for even more cold hardiness using Korean
azaleas. And so the beat goes on, with now more than 12,000 cold hardy azalea clones
selected (if not commercially available) for gardeners to use in their beds.
The Azalea Society of America will hold its annual convention in Little Rock April
5-7, 2018. This is the first time the group has met in Arkansas. We plan to have
some of John Carden’s azaleas for sale at our plant sale. He was a long-time postman
and azalea nurseryman from Fort Smith who developed about a dozen selections known
as the Carden-Harris azaleas. Check the ASA website for details on the convention.
For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns,
visit Extension’s Website, www.uaex.uada.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part
of the U of A Division of Agriculture.