Meet the Man Behind the South's Iconic Encore Azalea
A half a century and hundreds of thousands of seedlings later, Robert "Buddy" E. Lee still loves azaleas for the same reason he started growing them as a teen on his parents' Folsom, Louisiana, dairy farm. "It's that blast of color," he says. "When they are in bloom, they glow, and it seems to come out of nowhere." Today, when Lee looks at these shrubs, he often recognizes something else special: that he bred them. "Just a couple of days ago, we passed a shop in Covington and all of these "Autumn Amethyst" azaleas were in full bloom. Knowing that those are mine—that's awesome!" he exclaims.
Gardeners across the country have Lee to thank for Encore azaleas, evergreens that bloom three times a year, are available in 31 cultivars in an array of colors (everything from red to white to lavender), and are now widely considered the best to grow. They also have strong root systems, are winter-hardy and pest tolerant, and establish quickly. All of this is the result of about 50 years of cultivation. "The thing I like best about plant breeding is just watching the diversity that it produces. Each seedling is genetically different. It amazes me," he says.
The almost 65-year-old has always been headed toward a destination. Inspired by trips to local Zemurray Gardens and participation in horticultural societies, Lee started growing plants in first grade and then worked in a nursery before he was legally allowed to be employed. "When they found out I was 14, they made me leave and wait to come back," he recalls. By the time he finished college, he was operating his own nursery on his parents' property, mostly selling cross-pollinated evergreen azaleas. "It was a highly competitive business," he says. He decided he needed a superior product: a recognizable azalea that would bloom in the fall too.
Although he'd gotten a lot of fall blooms, they were never predictable enough to mass-produce—until he found Rhododendron oldhamii, a type his friend received from Taiwan. Lee crossed the oldhamii with the 40 cultivars he'd collected over the years, and the great-great-great-etc. grandparents of Encore were born. Lee forged a partnership with Flowerwood Nursery in Alabama. Together, they pursued about 11,000 of the initial 40,000 seedlings resulting from that first round of cross-pollination. Many generations, years, and containers later, the first Encore plant was named: "Autumn Rouge.'
In 1991, Lee stopped selling plants entirely and dedicated himself to breeding them on his property. He then worked as a registered nurse from 1995 to 2001, but he still found time to care for his nursery. "I did night shifts at the hospital because I don't like working inside when it's pretty outside. That gave me daylight to be with plants," he says. "Nursing was extremely stressful, especially in the ICU. But when I worked with plants, I stepped into a different world." He eventually left nursing when his azalea breeding took a turn toward perfection. In fact, it came from that initial round, and it was the very first seedling to bloom. Lee says that when people ask him his favorite, he chooses "Autumn Rouge' for this reason. "But really, my favorite is always the one that's right in front of me in full bloom," he says.
Everything Encore Azaleas Need
- Well-Drained, Acid Soil: "The pH should be between 5 and 5.5. Make sure the root ball is moist when you plant it," Lee says, but otherwise, "They do not like wet feet."
- Shallow Planting: "The top of the root ball should be a couple of inches above the soil grade. Bring dirt up around it in a mound," he says.
- Proper Protection: "In the first year, don't let it dry out, and avoid exposing it to extremely cold wind and reflected summer sun," Lee advises.
- Early Pruning: "After the initial spring bloom, the sooner you prune, the better. It will trigger the next buds," he says.
- To Otherwise Be Left Alone: Don't plant bulbs too close to them. "Their shallow roots don't like to be disturbed," Lee says.
Most of the 31 cultivars of Encore azaleas will be available at retail garden centers this spring. For more information, visit encoreazalea.com.
Work At Transcend Nursery in South Louisiana, Lee crosses cultivars and tends blooms to develop azaleas with exceptional root systems and growth habits. This involves close attention and a lot of creativity. ‘Autumn Rouge,’ which was introduced in the 1990s, has had great success and has since been planted in gardens all over the South and as far away as the Pacific Coast.
1976-1983: Collecting Cultivators
Driven by market competition, Lee, then the owner of Savannah Spring Nursery in Folsom, began collecting and evaluating named cultivars of evergreen azaleas for their tendency to repeat bloom in the fall.
1981: A Fortuitous Discovery
While visiting a friend, Dr. John T. Thornton, a veterinarian and plant enthusiast, Lee saw an R. oldhamii azalea flowering—in July. "I theorized that if I could hybridize this summer-blooming azalea with the cultivars I had been collecting, I might be able to develop a multiseasonal evergreen azalea." He took pollen from that plant and crossed it with his cultivars.
1982-1990: The First Bloom
Lee removed half-inch-tall seedlings from the greenhouse to see which would survive outside. Those damaged by heat, cold, or pests were discarded. In 1985, one flowered with "a semidouble form and a dark pink, almost red color," Lee says. It had nice leaf structure, a mounding growth habit, and a strong root system. "I realized I was on the right track," he recalls.
1986-1991: The Chosen Few...Thousand
From the innumerable seedlings that survived, Lee selected plants for repeat blooms, desirable forms, tolerance to environmental and pest stressors, viable root systems, and ease of propagation. He was left with 40,000. In 1991, a truckload of the selected 11,000 were moved to Flowerwood Nursery in Loxley, Alabama, for more evaluation and propagation.
Early 1990s: Forged in Struggle - 'Autumn Rouge'
An extremely early and hard freeze left both Lee and Flowerwood Nursery with about 100 selections. "Only the azalea selections that handled extreme cold weather moved forward in the program." Finally, a cultivar was selected and named "Autumn Rouge." It was the same seedling that first bloomed for him back in 1985. Encore was chosen as the brand name.
1997: To Market We Go
On June 20, the day it was announced that Encore azaleas would be available for sale in September, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article about the special plants. Lee was unable to attend the launch event in the fall. "I was working the night shift as a registered nurse," he recalls. Shortly after, stores began to run out due to limited supply.
2003: Meeting Demands
Within just a few years, sales of Encore azaleas hit the one-million mark, and interest has only continued to grow. Fans shared that they wanted an Encore with a white bloom. After finally getting that, Lee released "Autumn Angel" in 2003. Since then, several other white-blooming Encore azaleas have made it to market.
2020-?: Future Story
What will come next from Lee's business, Transcend Nursery? "Developing multicolored blooms and leaves with unique color patterns are just a couple of my goals," he says. "And of course, the successful development of an evergreen azalea with vibrant yellow flowers and an exceptional honeysuckle fragrance is at the top of my wish list."