The Lovely Azaleas
Written By Leeann Donnelly
In Our Gardens
Strolling through our 15-acre Azalea Garden in May is a rite of spring, with thousands of bright blossoms lining the stone stairs and masses of vivid flowers cascading throughout the area. In fact, we expect peak azalea color this week.
We have Chauncey Beadle to thank for all of that gorgeous color. Chauncey, a Canadian horticulturalist hired in 1890 by Frederick Law Olmsted for his encyclopedic knowledge of plants, served as estate superintendent from 1909 until his death in 1950.
“Beadle loved all plants, but he had a special fondness for native deciduous azaleas,” said Bill Alexander, Landscape & Forest Historian. “He and two close friends became known as ‘the azalea hunters’ collecting virtually every form and color variation.”
Beadle and his colleagues kept detailed notes about their forays, writing down when and where they collected plants on travels throughout the Southeast. Native azaleas were Beadle’s passion, and he called them the finest American shrubs.
In 1940, he gave his entire collection of azaleas (which he fondly referred to as “his children”) to Biltmore, planting them in the valley below the Conservatory known as the Glen. Edith Vanderbilt changed the garden’s name to the Azalea Garden to honor Beadle and his lifelong work on his 50th anniversary with Biltmore.
Today, gardeners Bob Smart and Charles Harris, members of the estate’s Historic Gardens landscaping crew, are responsible for maintaining Beadle’s legacy and the never-ending upkeep of the Azalea Garden.
“Chauncey Beadle planted several thousand azaleas originally,” said Bob. “We try to keep as many old plants as possible, replacing them when needed with old types and species, but we also bring in new ones to keep the garden thriving.”
Last year, they replanted several hundred azaleas—mostly evergreens—lining the stone stairs at the Azalea Garden’s entrance and added nearly 400 more in the rest of the garden. Charles explains that the eye-catching evergreen varieties have heavier, more prolific blooms and some even re-bloom. They also planted many native deciduous azaleas that display delicate orange, yellow and pink flowers in late spring.
Not all their time is spent planting; they devote hours researching and collecting additional azaleas to keep the garden beautiful. They find plants at trade shows, through the North Carolina Nursery Notes bi-monthly magazine, nurseries, and growers who visit here.
“Sometimes growers we know will visit the garden and suggest a particular addition,” said Charles. “They recognize that it’s an honor to have plants here.”