A Little Bit Further Down The Trail

A deep dive into the origins of Mobile’s famous azaleas, and the hybridizer who was devoted to their perfection.

Photo collage of 3 Different hybrids of Azaleas native to Mobile, AL
Shot on Location at Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Photos by Chad Riley

The Port City, the Gateway to the Gulf, The City of Six Flags. Throughout the years, Mobile has earned several well-fitting nicknames. Only one highlights Mobile’s botanical claim to fame: The Azalea City. 

Azaleas appear to run through Mobile’s DNA but it was only in the 1920s that their importance was fully publicized and integrated into our city’s identity. After seeing tourists flock to the flourishing azalea gardens of Charleston during a 1928 visit, retired Mobile businessman and horticulturist Sam Lackland introduced the concept of the Azalea Trail in Mobile. The city already had vibrant, thriving azaleas, thanks to the moist, slightly acidic soil. Lackland charged the Junior Chamber of Commerce, now the Mobile Jaycees, to lead the effort by planting flowers along the streets. On February 22, 1929, the first Azalea Trail opened. It spanned 15 miles and included the South Ann Street property of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath, who happened to be neighbors of Lackland. Residents planted azaleas in front of their homes, expanding the trail as a whirl of tourists came to see the gorgeous blooms, bringing revenue and Mobile’s newest title with them. Each spring through 1948, dignitaries and celebrities cut the ribbon to open the trail. The trail route changed over the years and the Jaycees painted a pink line in the middle of the street to direct the throngs of visitors. 

The floral spectacle sparked some of Mobile’s mainstays, including the Azalea Trail Maids, also started by the Jaycees. With origins as ambassadors to the trail’s visiting tourists, the maids still serve as Mobile’s representatives today, both at home and at events nationwide. 

Though the trail eventually faded, in 2015, the Jaycees and Keep Mobile Beautiful established a new Azalea Trail in three parts across Mobile, posting new trail signs to guide visitors, and hosting the Azalea Trail Festival each March.

- Sponsors -
Photograph of an azalea bush in full bloom at Bellingrath Gardens
Bellingrath Gardens. Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

With all this to-do over azaleas, you might assume that Mobile was justly proud of her native beauties. You would be correct — almost. They were beauties, all right, but native? Not quite. The first azaleas came to Mobile from France in the 1750s by way of Frenchman Fifise Langlois. Southern Indica azaleas, arguably the city’s most recognizable variety and widely used in landscaping, were imported to the United States from China and Japan. Even more were brought in and planted for the Azalea Trail. These azaleas were grown overseas in greenhouses, well-suited to Mobile’s balmy climate. As evergreens, they keep their foliage year-round. Alabama’s native azaleas, less commonly featured in landscaping, are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the winter. These plants are closer to small trees, growing higher and bigger than the more shrub-like evergreens. Of the 17 species of native azaleas in the United States, five are native to Alabama.

That being said, hybrids of both deciduous and evergreen azaleas exist that claim Mobile parenting. It’s appropriate that Dr. Eugene “Gene” John Aromi, an education professor at the University of South Alabama with a penchant for hands-on learning, began his azalea education in his front yard in the 1960s. Like any Mobilian, he wanted his azaleas to flourish and, like any academic, he began to research. But simply researching was rarely enough for Dr. Aromi; he had to get his hands dirty. Soon, he began crosses of his own, starting with evergreen azaleas in 1969. His goal with the evergreens was to produce azaleas with large flowers spanning a multitude of forms and colors, early blooms and increased resilience. 

Vintage photograph of Dr. Eugene John Aromi in a greenhouse surrounded by flower seeds
Dr. Eugene John Aromi in his greenhouse holding a seedling (and his characteristic mug of coffee). Photo courtesy Jeannette Zimlich

Part of the success of the Aromi hybrids came from the fact that, in addition to being an education professor, Dr. Aromi was an artist and approached hybridization similarly to painting. 

Two years later, he began making hybrids of deciduous azaleas, crossing native blooms from the South with Exbury varieties, which came from England in the 20th century. He cultivated these hybrids for heat tolerance and increased fragrance, aiming to create blooms that would truly thrive in The Azalea City. As his passion project began to expand, the Aromi family foyer was equipped with flats of seedlings under grow lights, emitting a constant glow. In addition to lunch meat and mayonnaise, the refrigerator contained seeds in labeled mailing envelopes and pollen saved in plastic tubes. His young daughters often awoke on Saturday mornings to their father cheerfully trumpeting through an empty paper towel roll, then shouting, “Wake up! The sun ball is up! Time to weed some pots!” As soon as his young daughters outgrew their swing set, rows of pots — recycled coffee cans in the early days — on black plastic took over most of the backyard, with a majority of the yard converting into a mini nursery. When a plant bloomed that Dr. Aromi deemed a success, he planted it in the front yard to reach its full potential and used it as a parent plant for other crosses. The front yard was soon so bursting with his success that it earned the moniker “The Jungle” from a neighbor of the square hedge azalea persuasion. Dr. Aromi’s wife Jane helped catalog seeds and transfer seedlings, a meticulous process involving a microscope, tweezers and a good supply of patience. In his address in the September 1999 issue of “The Azalean,” he said, “…the Aromi Hybrids are as much a product of my wife Jane’s efforts as they are of my own.” For her, he created the hybrid “Jane’s Gold,” also taken to mean “Jane is Gold.” He also named hybrids after his daughters, son and grandchildren.

A polaroid of azaleas
A Polaroid shows an Aromi hybrid in bloom. The numbers at the bottom reflect Dr. Aromi’s precise method for categorizing his crosses. Photo courtesy Jeannette Zimlich

Part of the success of the Aromi hybrids came from the fact that, in addition to being an education professor, Dr. Aromi was an artist and approached hybridization similarly to painting. Like mixing colors, he strategically chose parent plants to create the most beautiful, fragrant crosses. Once his hybrids matured, he gave them whimsical names, such as “Spring Enchantment,” “Honeybee Hobnob” and “Dancing Rabbit.” And though, despite his years of education, he had never taken a botany course, he created over 1,000 crosses and brought 100,000 seedlings to flower. Of those crosses, about 100 are named. Several of his hybrids were planted in the Springhill Avenue Azalea Trail median. He was still naming hybrids the day before he died in 2004.

Dr. Aromi gave a large majority of his work to Maarten van der Giessen of van der Giessen Nursery in Wilmer, who has kept the hybrids alive, making them available in the retail market for azalea enthusiasts. The Aromi hybrids have been showcased in collections across the South and in the National Arboretum in Washington, but it took decades before his work was officially honored in their place of origin. The Aromi hybrids were featured alongside flowers of other local hybridizers such as Tom Dodd Jr. and Kosaku Sawada at the Mobile Botanical Gardens, but van der Giessen, along with others, believed they deserved a dedicated spot of their own. He championed and spearheaded funding for the cause, and on April 9, 2016, the Aromi Hybrid Azalea Garden opened in the Mobile Botanical Gardens. More than half the funds came from organizations and individuals outside of Mobile.

Dr. Aromi’s passion project started from a thirst for knowledge and bloomed into something much bigger. When Dr. Aromi dug in the Mobile dirt, he struck gold. Today, Gene’s gold is on full display for the Azalea City to enjoy.

Did you know? MB staff writer Amelia Rose Zimlich is Dr. Aromi’s granddaughter and has one of his evergreen azalea hybrids named after her.

On a sunny day late last March, MB gathered one perfect flower from a dozen blooming bushes along the winding paths of Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Each variety has a history as unique as its petals, and color bursting with springtime enthusiasm! Now let us help you keep them all straight.

Different types of azaleas labeled by name
Photo by Chad Riley

George Lindley Taber
A Southern Indica hybrid, the George Lindley Taber azalea sports pale pink petals with a delicate fragrance in a single flower form. It can grow up to 5 feet tall. Use plenty of peat moss when planting.

The Kurume azaleas were developed by Japanese nurserymen from Japan’s island, Kyushu. These evergreen azaleas grow about 3 feet tall and feature petals in a hose-in-hose formation that can range from single to double.

The Iveryana azalea sports white flowers with pink stripes, with the shade varying from one bush to the next. The Southern Indica hybrid blooms in late spring and grows to a height of 3 feet.

President Claey
At maturity, this Southern Indica hybrid can reach 6 feet in height. The President Claey azalea features vibrant 2-inch flowers and attracts hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden.

The Formosa azalea has large purple flowers that range in hue, and bloom in the spring and the fall. Growing at a height of about 6 feet at maturity, this Southern Indica hybrid flourishes in partial sun.

Mrs. G.G. Gerbing 
Dense clusters of large white blooms categorize this Southern Indica hybrid. The Mrs. G. G. Gerbing azalea grows to a height of about 8 feet and has a high sun and heat tolerance.

Red Formosa
The Red Formosa azalea is slow growing with showstopping blossoms. Thriving in shady gardens, this azalea plant can reach anywhere from 6 to 8 feet in height.

Encore Autumn Amethyst
Encore azaleas bloom from spring through fall, creating gardens full of flowers for most of the year. The Autumn Amethyst, with its single dark fuchsia petals, thrives in full sun. 

Ken Sanderson
The Ken Sanderson azalea produces smaller lavender blossoms with red dots at the throat. This plant prefers partial sun and grows to a height between 5 and 8 feet at maturity.

Pride of Mobile
This Southern Indica hybrid is one of the more recognizable varieties planted around Mobile. Reaching heights of around 6 to 8 feet, Pride of Mobile is heat tolerant, and attracts bees and hummingbirds.

Amelia Rose
An evergreen Aromi hybrid, the Amelia Rose azalea closely resembles a rose, with a double layer of rich purplish-pink petals. This plant does well in well-drained, slightly moist soil, and can reach height of up to 6 feet at maturity.

Southern Charm
Bright bubblegum pink petals characterize the Southern Charm evergreen azalea. This variety does better in sunlight than most azaleas, but no more than 6 hours of sunlight a day is recommended.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!