Sylvester Owens: Biltmore’s “Azalea King”

A significant and often overlooked employee in Biltmore’s past is Sylvester Owens: chauffeur, “Azalea Hunter,” and head gardener trained by Biltmore’s nursery manager and later estate superintendent Chauncey Beadle. It is because of Owens’ passion and expertise that Beadle’s vision for the Azalea Garden was completed, creating the stunning landscape that we know and enjoy today.

Learn about this important figure in Biltmore’s history and his lasting contributions to our renowned garden landscapes.

Sylvester Owens. Photo courtesy of Eugenia (Gena) McCleary.
Sylvester Owens. Photo courtesy of Eugenia (Gena) McCleary.

Sylvester Owens at Biltmore

Owens was born in Rutherford County, NC, in 1897. He received little formal education during his youth and began helping on his family farm at a young age. By his early 20s, he had been married and widowed with two young children, at which time he moved to Asheville to live with his uncle, Jim Owens.

He began his employment at Biltmore as a chauffeur and companion to Chauncey Beadle in 1920. His brother Frank was also employed on the estate, performing maintenance and supplying firewood to Biltmore House.

Sylvester Owens tagging an azalea at Biltmore, photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.
Sylvester Owens tagging an azalea at Biltmore, photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.

The Azalea Hunters

Under Beadle’s mentorship, Sylvester Owens progressed to become an assistant gardener and one of the so-called “Azalea Hunters,” traveling around the Southeast with Beadle and several others collecting unique specimens of azalea plants.

According to a 1997 oral history conducted with Owens’ daughter Mabel Owens Hoskins and widow Franklyn Owens, he grew to have a genuine friendship with Chauncey Beadle. When traveling together to gather azaleas, Beadle would not stay or eat at any place that would not also accommodate Owens due to his race.

Excerpt from a newspaper supplement produced by Biltmore featuring Sylvester Owens, April 14, 1968.
Excerpt from a newspaper supplement produced by Biltmore featuring Sylvester Owens, April 14, 1968.

When Chauncey Beadle died in 1950, Judge Junius Adams, president of The Biltmore Company, asked Sylvester Owens to take over Beadle’s work. Judge Adams stated upon his appointment that “His interest in the garden is sincere. He knows more about the plants, their origins, and their characteristics than anyone around and he is thoroughly familiar with Mr. Beadle’s plan.” Owens’ daughter Mabel later said that:

“I believe that he was able to handle Mr. Beadle’s death better because he was able to complete something that they had started together. Otherwise, he probably would have not felt as good about the ending of their relationship because they were very close. As I said, he was not only his chauffeur, but he was his companion too and they were more like friends…the respect that the Beadles had for my father and his family was encouraging, and the kind of thing that makes for a better person.”

Sylvester Owens photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.
Sylvester Owens photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.

Azalea King

Owens was recognized for his work in several newspaper articles as well as in Ebony magazine in 1951 with an article titled “Azalea King.” According to the article, Owens was considered “one of the greatest authorities on azalea culture today.”

An article in The Charlotte Observer from July 1950 quotes Owens’ response to his appointment to carry on Beadle’s work: “I plan to make this spot the most beautiful garden in the world…Like Mr. Beadle, I love the plants—all of them—and I can picture the whole valley in bloom when the work is completed. Mr. Beadle was the finest, kindest man I ever knew. I was surprised and happy to be the one to carry on.”

Sylvester Owens and William Cecil with a truck in front of Biltmore House
Sylvester Owens with William A.V. Cecil in front of Biltmore House, photographed by Toni Frissell in May 1964. In the collection of the Library of Congress.

Sylvester Owens’ Legacy

Today, the Azalea Garden spans around 15 acres, but Owens’ purview extended beyond its current boundaries. He eventually oversaw many of the landscaping crews on the estate. He would travel with them to exhibit their work in Charlotte, and in 1961 they won the President’s Award from the Southeastern Rhododendron Show, which was a great point of pride for Owens, according to his family.

Sylvester Owens retired in 1964 after almost 44 years of service to the estate and after completing Beadle’s plans for the gardens at Biltmore. Owens lived in the Shiloh community until his death in 1989, and some of his descendants remain in the area. He is buried at the Shiloh AME Zion Church Cemetery, and his legacy lives on today through the beauty of Biltmore’s gardens.

Azaleas in bloom at Biltmore
The Azalea Garden offers a spectacular variety of colors each spring.

The Lasting Beauty of Biltmore’s Azalea Garden

Beautiful any time of year, the Azalea Garden at Biltmore puts on a spectacular show each spring and is a testament to the lasting impact of this important figure in Biltmore’s history. From the hearty flame azalea native to the Blue Ridge Mountains to some of the most rare varieties in the world, thousands of vivid blooms provide a kaleidoscope of color for you to enjoy when you visit Biltmore Estate.

Special thanks to Explore Asheville and the Black Cultural Heritage Trail for collaborating with Biltmore to share these stories throughout historically Black neighborhoods in Asheville.

Biltmore’s Azalea Garden: A Tribute to Chauncey Beadle

A favorite pastime of Biltmore Blooms is visiting the Azalea Garden—one of the largest selections of native azaleas in the country. The 15-acre garden is home to more than 20,000 plants, offering thousands upon thousands of vivid blooms of white, yellow, orange, and every shade of pink imaginable.

Azalea Garden in bloom
Biltmore’s Azalea Garden in peak bloom

But did you know the Azalea Garden was not actually part of the original plan for the estate?

This parade of color is a culmination of the passion of Chauncey Beadle, an avid azalea collector and horticulturist hired at Biltmore in 1890 who later became the estate superintendent.

Chauncey Beadle, ca. 1906
Chauncey Beadle, ca. 1906

Beadle and “The Azalea Hunters”

Beginning in 1930, Beadle, along with fellow botanists and friends Frank Crayton and William Knight—aptly called “The Azalea Hunters”—spent countless hours over long weekends and holidays driving through each southeastern state searching for every species, natural hybrid, form, and color of azalea.

Chauncey Beadle in the Azalea Garden, 1948
Chauncey Beadle in the Azalea Garden, ca. 1948

Beadle maintained his massive personal collection at his farm on the east side of Asheville until 1940, but he knew that he needed to find a home for his azaleas, fondly referred to as his “children,” before he became too old to care for them.

He could think of no better home than the Glen in the valley below Biltmore’s Conservatory and gardens. Edith Vanderbilt Gerry and Judge Junius G. Adams, Biltmore Company president at the time, agreed.

Azalea Garden Ceremony, 1940
Azalea Garden ceremony, ca. 1940

Establishing the Azalea Garden

In honor of his then fifty years of service to Biltmore, the estate held a celebration for Beadle* on April 1, 1940, in the Glen, which from that day forward would be named the Azalea Garden. All estate employees and their spouses were invited to the event.

Edith Gerry and Chauncey Beadle, 1940
Edith Vanderbilt Gerry and Chauncey Beadle, ca. 1940

During the ceremony, Edith unveiled a marker that memorializes Beadle’s lifetime of faithful service and gift of his azaleas to Biltmore.

Join us in celebrating the generosity and genius of Chauncey Beadle with a springtime stroll through the Azalea Garden. Plan your visit today!

*Thanks to new research from our Museum Services team, we now know that nine other employees were also honored for their many years of service in the 1940 Azalea Garden ceremony, including four Black men affiliated with the Landscape Department.