A Brief History of the Azalea

Many of our best-loved plants first entered the South in Charleston. Here’s the fascinating story of the azalea got through the region's garden gateway and to your backyard.
Steve Bender

No plant has shaped the Southern garden more than an evergreen shrub called the Indica azalea. Native to Japan, it got its name because at the time it was discovered, Asia was known as the East Indies.

Growing 8 to 12 feet tall and wide, it smothers itself in spring with mind-boggling blossoms of red, pink, white, purple, and salmon. First-time onlookers were stunned. By 1845, the largest and oldest collection flourished at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens up the Ashley River from Charleston.

Home to 13 generations of the Drayton family, Magnolia bills itself as the country’s “oldest romantic garden.” A departure from the geometric formalism that characterizes many Charleston gardens, Magnolia emphasizes a naturalistic look. “A romantic garden is man’s attempt at re-creating Eden, a place where man and nature work in harmony,” explains Tom Johnson, Magnolia’s director of gardens. “A romantic garden can never look maintained.”

Today, thousands of azaleas boisterously spill their blossoms from the edges of Magnolia’s winding trails, ponds, and marshes. Though only 40 of the 86 original selections planted can be positively identified, their descendants, the Southern Indica hybrids (including ‘Formosa,’ ‘George Lindley Taber,’ and ‘Mrs. G.G. Gerbing’), grace more homes in the Middle, Lower, and Coastal South than any other shrub. Like the other special plants still to be discussed, they’re easily found at garden centers.