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In Search of Wild Azaleas in North Carolina

by Werner Brack

In the middle of June 2000, Werner, Bud, Bob, Al Fitzburgh, and I made a trip to Hendersonville , N.C. to see the wild azaleas and other things horticultural. On the first day, June 15th, we met our most gracious tour guide, Ed Collins, and his friend Charlie Larus. They drove us to Copper Bald. There was a place to park cars and we set off on part of the Appalachian Trail . It was quite a hard slog up the rocky path, but it was all beautiful. First we saw calendulaceum, which can be yellow, orange, and sometimes scarlet. Further along we saw bakeri, which was mostly orange, but sometimes there were lovely pink flowers. After a two hour walk, there was arborescens, which was white or white with a little pink or yellow and fragrant. Mixed in with the azaleas and trees there was a profusion of wild flowers and ferns. We also spotted a deer and a wild turkey. Part way up we stopped to have a picnic lunch at what our hosts called the Mossy Log Cafe (you got to sit on a very wet fallen tree trunk). Coming down was easie. We were told that Eric Rudolf (the suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombing) had definitely been in these parts and we were shown a cut through the woods that the FBI had made during their search for him. We returned to the cars and went to Wayah by way of the Forest Service road which was unusual in that it was paved. At Wayah there was a lookout tower (built during the Depression) and from the tower there was a magnificent view of the mountains and a sea of arborescens blooming below. We stopped to look at a big leaf dipthia. There were also many lilies (superbum) along the roadside, not yet in bloom.

On our second day we saw four gardens in Hendersonville . The first was Ed Collins’ botanical wonder. In eight years he had cleared away a jungle of maximums and planted three thousand rhododendrons brought from New Jersey, 2600 of these are Cowles hybrids.Jack Cowles bred rhododendrons on the Dexter Estate in Sandwich Mass. in the early 60s and Ed discovered them in the late 70s. Ed had built a spectacular rock garden, complete with waterfall, and had organized his garden into groups of beds with rhododendrons, azaleas, day lilies, gingers, orchids, and a host of other lovely plants.

The second garden belonged to Bob Stelloh, who has owned it for four years. It was a beautiful woodland site, with streams and ponds and lots of little paths going up and down. He had planted rhododendrons, azaleas, hostas, and gingers under a canopy of native trees, maximums, and azaleas.
Number three was totally different - a large open garden with no deciduous trees. This was Ted Manger’s fifteen year old conifer garden. It was almost entirely planted with conifers in green, yellow, and blue, and was incredibly neat. He clips and shapes his plants and also does propagating. Some specimen firs just didn’t look real. Some had their roots trimmed as well as their growth tips. There were a lot of mass plantings with colors and textures of the plants cleverly mixed together. The only flowers were in a bed of annuals in the front of the house. This garden has to be seen to be believed.

The fourth was also a very young garden, about four years old, belonging to Ev and Bruce Whitemore. This one was also amazing. It was nearly all rock gardens with several ponds. The rock gardens were made of gray rock and stone and dry streams were lined with brown rock. The whole thing was fenced to keep the deer out and the dog in. There was a large vegetable garden to grow peas, providing low cal snacks for the dog with a weight problem. There were two large covered rock gardens which can be heated in the winter. There were many small rock garden plants and larger plants with the larger rocks. This was also all incredibly tidy, and most extraordinary. Blue corydalis grew well and they had several different kinds - one called Blackberry Wine which was a purplish color. As a contrast to all the gray and subdued colors, they had a large bed of very lurid annuals on one side of the house and a little woodland all around the edge. They had saved a large maximum which towered over the rocks. A couple from South Africa joined us walking around this most unusual garden.

This was a most interesting, fun, and worthwhile trip. North Carolina is lovely, but we were warned not to tell anybody. The locals don’t want outsiders to discover their paradise!