Spotlight: Buddy Lee, Encore Azalea

In spring, it’s easy to be blasé about azaleas – after all, they’re everywhere. But later this year – in, say, November – when you see bushes bursting with pink and fuchsia blooms, remember to thank Buddy Lee. The Louisiana native developed and patented the Encore Azalea, the only kind to bloom spring, summer and fall.

Was there a particular incident that led you to develop the Encore Azalea?
I’d always been interested in plant breeding, and I was working with my own collection of azaleas. Then, one day back in the 1980s, I saw an azalea blooming away in the middle of July. It was next to a veterinarian’s office, and he had brought it back from Taiwan. Its scientific name is Rhododendron oldhamii – the Taiwanese summer-blooming azalea. When I saw it, I thought, “That’s what I need!” So around 1990, I started concentrating on plant breeding, though I kept working as a registered nurse, because all this takes money.

Are azaleas something you’ve always been interested in?
I grew up in Independence, La., surrounded by azaleas. And from the time I was 15, I worked part-time and summers at a wholesale nursery that specialized in the flower. They’re so easy to grow and so spectacular that I got addicted. After finishing school, I started my own plant nursery and began collecting azaleas that bloomed in fall.

It took many years to develop the bush that would bloom for three seasons. How would you describe the process?
I took traditional azaleas that had a natural tendency to bloom in fall, and I used controlled cross-pollination with the Taiwanese summer-blooming azalea to produce about 35, 000 to 40, 000 seedlings. I sort of went overboard. I eliminated ones that were too tender and ones that didn’t grow well. Mother Nature also took a toll. Heat and cold killed a lot of them. I grew them in an unprotected environment; I didn’t baby them. That still left me with a lot of azaleas. I began propagating the ones that really stood out; I was looking for ease of repeat blooming, good growth habit and leaf color. By 1995, we had narrowed all those plants down to seven, and they were the first varieties to be marketed.

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Which one of the Encore Azaleas is your favorite?
It depends which ones are blooming! Autumn Rouge and Autumn Cheer are two of my favorites, and also Autumn Amethyst, for the way it takes the cold.

What is the best advice you can give to gardeners?
When you plant azaleas, the first year is crucial. Be sure they have enough water through the summer heat. Also remember that azaleas need well-drained, acidic soil. They need moisture, but they don’t like wet feet!

What will you develop next?
A true red bloom is extremely hard to find. That’s one thing I’m working on. MB

interview by Kathie Farnell

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