Gregory Bald Azaleas: Hybridization at its Finest

May 1, 2018

Every year in early June, visitors to Southern Highlands Reserve are rewarded with an especially vibrant range of color offered by our Gregory Bald Azalea collection. A magnificent display of reds, yellows, pinks and whites is a highlight to all who visit. Although SHR’s collection is a little more than a decade old, these gorgeous flowers have been many years in the making.

High on a grassy meadow in Great Smoky National Park near Cades Cove, bumblebees foraged for nectar for eons amongst the azaleas, unknowingly taking part in a cross-pollination experiment that would’ve captured the attention of Gregor Mendel. Thanks to the work of these nectar-feasting bees, the genetic material from four species of azalea, R. arborescens, R. viscosum, R. cumberlandense and R. calendulaceum, were cross-pollinated. The result – what we know today as the Gregory Bald Azalea – is magnificent.

The Gregory Bald Azalea has the finest characteristics of its parents, including an explosive, trumpeting shape, and brilliant hues. The flowers come in all kinds of colors and color combinations with color tones changing as the flower ages. Some specimens may flower in a warm color palette of reds, oranges and yellows with hints of salmon or magenta, yet others show off cooler tones of pinks, whites and light yellows. Some are also fragrant; they get this gene from the fragrant white arborescens species.

Gregory Bald Azaleas have a long history of getting people’s attention. In 1776, naturalist William Bartram first discovered flame azaleas which he boldly called “the most gay and brilliant flowing shrub yet known.” According to the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, curators at the British Museum of Natural History were so taken with them, that they are reported to have numerous samples of Gregory Balds in their collection. These brilliant azaleas made such an impression that the Gregory Bald national park was formed to ensure they would be protected and enjoyed by all who wished to visit them. In the book Hiking in the Smokies, secretary of the Smoky Mountains Conservation Association Carlos Campbell shared the history of two dignitaries visiting the Smokes in 1924 to scout a possible national park location. According to Campbell, well-known botanist Harlan P. Kesley “made the statement that the flame azalea, which incidentally, was one of his favorite shrubs, reached its maximum development anywhere in the country on and near Gregory Bald and said that was one of the highlights, one of the things that made this area worthy of being a National Park.” Today, Azalea enthusiasts travel from across the world to see them by hiking an 11-mile trail to Gregory Bald to witness their glory.

At Southern Highlands Reserve, visitors can enjoy the full spectrum these shrubs have to offer by strolling through the Azalea Walk, SHR’s collection of Gregory Bald Azaleas grown from seeds collected at Gregory Bald. The collection is planted in a “color vault” where the azaleas were planted near their neighbors whose blooms resemble their own, making for a stunning showcase of the breadth of colors combination of their spectrum of possible hues.

There are several upcoming opportunities to experience the beauty of the Gregory Bald Azalea – without enduring an 11-mile hike!

  • Schedule a Group Tour. Check out our calendar to see available dates during this peak season.
  • June 6th Visitors’ Day – SHR invites botanists, backyard gardeners and azalea enthusiasts to join us for the June 6th Visitors’ Day at SHR when they are in bloom.
  • May 19th Symposium – One of our featured speakers for our Symposium is Larry Mellichamp, Emeritus Professor of Botany and Horticulture at UNC-Charlotte and the Director of the UNC-Charlotte’s Botanical Gardens. Dr. Mellichamp will discuss “Secrets of the Floral Sex.” Please note that our symposium is currently sold out, but we do have a wait list.

We hope you join us in our appreciation for the joy and beauty these lovely shrubs bring to the SHR collection and to your gardens.