Are our beautiful, blooming azaleas “traditionally Southern” or not?
“Azalea gardens are a spectacular feature of the Southern landscape. The large-flowered, evergreen Southern Indian hybrid azaleas were first introduced from Europe to the United States as Belgian-Indian hybrids. The hybrids were developed in England and Belgium as greenhouse plants from several species native to Japan and China. Like camellias, they were used as tub plants in greenhouses and conservatories in the northeastern states before figuring as landscape plants in the South. In the 1840s they were introduced to Magnolia Gardens and proved to be hardy to the Deep South; they were soon popular throughout the Gulf Coast area. The hardier Belgian Indian hybrids in the South became known as the Southern Indian hybrids. The famous Fruitland Nursery in Augusta, Ga, played an important role in introducing azaleas, camellias, and many other ornamental plants to the South. A catalog of 1883 listed more than 50 varieties of azaleas, unfortunately, many of these old varieties are no longer available.
Southern cities such as Mobile, Savannah, and Charleston are famous for their azalea trails, roadside plantings, and special gardens lined with huge, colorful masses of such Southern Indian azaleas as the purplish-red Formosa, the Fielder’s White, and the pink Pride of Mobile.”
Fred C. Galle on “Gardens and Gardening” in Martin Melosi (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Environment (University of North Carolina Press, 2007), pp.79-80
The South has its own native species of azaleas:
“Two outstanding native shrubs are the oakleaf hydrangea and the many species of native azaleas often referred to as “wild honeysuckle.” The fragrant native azaleas include the white to pink forms of rhododendron R. canescens (Piedmont azalea), R. periclymenoides (nudiflorum) (pinxterbloom azalea), and R. alabamense (Alabama azalea); the pink R. vaseyi (pinkshell azalea); the white R. arborescens (sweet azalea) and R. viscosum (swamp azalea); and the yellow R. austrinum (Florida azalea).
The nonfragrant azaleas include the orange to red R. Flammeum (speciosum) and Oconee azalea, the yellow to deep orange flame azalea (R. calendulaceum), and the rare, late-flowering plumleaf azalea (R. prunifolium).”
The sugarcane, rice and cotton we harvested on our “traditional” highly globalized 19th century plantation economy in the context of the British-dominated South Atlantic System is native to South Asia. The tobacco that was harvested in Virginia for export to Europe was actually native to the Americas, but the African workforce and the system of chattel slavery and white supremacy was of Caribbean origins.
One more thing …
The hot and humid Southern climate is much more like the climate of China, Japan and South Korea than the United Kingdom. That’s why the South became infested with kudzu and why so many invasive species from South Asia are thriving here like in the Everglades.
I like to think of the azalea as an example of a contribution of Asia to improving the Southern Garden and making it more beautiful and aesthetic for everyone. Similarly, I would like to think about Southern-Asian cooperation in the area of culture and economics, especially how automation, artificial intelligence and robotics can be used to resurrect Slave Society in the 21st century.