The first cover of Southern Living blazed with the blossoms of our region's favorite shrubs—azaleas. They weren't cold hardy up North, but down here they thrived like fruit flies on apples. A photograph taken in the heart of Mobile's famous Azalea Trail seemed the perfect way to introduce a new magazine that celebrated the best of the South. Neighborhood azalea trails from the East Coast to East Texas, like the one in Mobile, amazed onlookers. Famous gardens, such as Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia; Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore, Alabama; and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, drew thousands of visitors to see waves of azaleas each spring. When color television began bringing us the Masters Tournament from Augusta National Golf Club in the 1960s, the clouds of azaleas blooming beneath the pines each April played second fiddle only to the champion.
But fashions wax and wane. And so it was with these old evergreen azaleas that first entered the South in the 1800s. Stunning as their flowers might be, they bloomed for only a week or two a year and then faded into green blobs. By the turn of the millennium, new hydrangeas and "Knock Out" roses—shrubs that bloom much longer—had shoved azaleas aside.
Robert "Buddy" Lee had other ideas, though. An azalea breeder from Louisiana, he'd heard of a summer-blooming azalea from Taiwan called Rhododendron oldhamii. (All azaleas belong to the genus Rhododendron.) He crossed it with many other types to produce a revolutionary series of azaleas that bloom on both last year's growth (like most azaleas do) and new growth. He submitted his seedlings to the legendary Flowerwood Nursery in Mobile for evaluation. Rave reviews resulted in the creation of a company called Plant Development Services, Inc. (PDSI), to offer them to the public. The name of the plants is Encore azaleas.
"Encores really changed the azalea market," says Kip McConnell, director of PDSI. "It used to be that azaleas were only a spring thing." But Encores bloom heavily in both spring and fall with intermittent flowers through the summer. About 30 different selections are available in a full range of colors. Unlike other azaleas, Encores like full sun.
In planning this anniversary issue, we thought it would be neat if we could locate the same house that's on our 1966 cover and shoot a new photo from the same angle. Find it we did, but two rather significant problems stood in the way. First, between hurricanes, droughts, and uncommon freezes, none of the original azaleas had survived. Second, by the time we contacted the present owners, spring azalea season had already passed. Where were we going to get scores of blooming azaleas for the shot? I called McConnell.
We couldn't re-create the scene exactly, because Hurricane Frederic had taken down most of the pines in 1979. Still, one day last October, two truckloads of Encore azaleas in full bloom pulled up in front of the house. Selections included "Autumn Carnation" (pink), "Autumn Sundance" (fuchsia), "Autumn Lily" (white), and "Autumn Empress" (pink). A couple of local TV news crews showed up to record this historic event and film lots of sweaty guys hauling plants from place to place. The home's current owners, LeAnne and David Naman, seemed quite pleased. The plants are thriving.
So it seems that azaleas in the South are on the rebound. Don't be surprised to see them grace our cover again.