The gorgeous flowers that epitomize the beauty of our Southern spring are, in fact, immigrants to America.
Not all of them, of course, but plant pillars such as azaleas, camellias and wisteria are not natives. We honed them into our own, convincing ourselves and our visitors that they are uniquely ours — Southern born and Southern bred.
Today’s read will be as short and sweet as the azalea itself, for all you need to do is take a Sunday drive to admire the real thing. Forget the descriptive words. Azaleas are out there, in all their blooming magnificent, to be admired, photographed, picked for vases and snuffed up for their sweet scent.
Well, this should be Azalea Glory Time. Mother Nature’s ever-changing temperatures this winter and spring are wishy-washy at best, causing some varieties to bloom early and others late. Normally, early April is prime time azalea watching.
To be accurate, Mississippi does have native azaleas in the rhododendron family that are quite beautiful in a honey-suckle flower way and quite fragrant. But they are not evergreens like their Asian immigrant cousins so often showcased on lawns and in Southern postcards pictures.
When these Asian beauties first arrived on the Mississippi Coast is unknown, but we can look at our neighbor to the east for ideas. Mobile and its famous Azalea Drive has roots stretching to the mid-1700s when a colonial horticulturalist named Fifise Langlois returned from his childhood home in Toulouse, France, with three colors of azaleas.
The first mention I’ve found in this newspaper of azaleas is from March 31, 1888, in a report from a New Orleans visitor to Beauvoir, then home to the aging Jefferson Davis. He observed “a great china bowl filled with bunches of delicious pink azaleas.” Davis and wife Varina were known for their experimental gardens, so the colorful Asian shrub would not be unexpected at their Biloxi estate.
This newspaper was born in 1884 but the first four years of Herald copies burned up in a fire, along with much of downtown Biloxi, so I cannot check for earlier azalea mentions. The 1880s timing, however, is right.
Late author and azalea historian Fred Galle wrote that the plants called Southern indicas (hybrids developed from evergreen, free-blooming Japanese rhododendron species) were introduced to outdoor landscapes in the 1830s at a Charleston, S.C., rice plantation. We Southerners made the azalea “uniquely ours” through a hard work, hybridizing and promotion.
Early on, many Southerners kept azaleas in pots in the house or greenhouse in the winter and brought them outside with warmer weather. Eventually, azaleas became permanent garden fixtures.
Local availability improved in 1927 when one of the Coast’s biggest agriculture and nursery promoters, W.A. Cox, acquired several thousand azalea plants. “I am anxious to see the Gulf Coast of Mississippi plant them in various yards, parks and neutral grounds,” Cox explained. “Make the Coast beautiful by planting them.”
Happily, Coast residents paid heed to Cox and his ilk. Long before the 21st century, the immigrant azaleas had assimilated into “native” spring beauties. Why not take an old-fashioned Sunday drive to enjoy them?
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.