Under the Azalea Bush

Your mother and I have been talking. And we decided it was time you understood something very important about, well, you know, where you came from, and how you got here.

It all started (as so much in Mobile does) under the azalea bush. 

As you go through life, and travel to other places, you’ll discover that most people will have a hard time appreciating this. The azaleas they’re used to are as trim and prim as librarians. Nothing much happens under the azalea bushes where they come from, because there’s just not much bush to speak of. 

But your azaleas, the azaleas around Mobile Bay that first inspired you, are broad and voluptuous, ready to swallow the world in their sweet embrace, sometimes 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide, spread across the lawns of our bayside cities like fluorescent hoopskirts.

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In the few other cities where they may be grown, people called them Southern Indian azaleas. We called them Old Mobile azaleas. Not because they came from here. In fact, they’re descendants of azaleas native to Asia that made their way around the world until they finally found a home in the warmest parts of the coastal South.

Some say Mobilians were at first reluctant to adopt these alien azaleas, until Sam Lackland persuaded the Mobile Jaycees to establish a trail of azaleas in the late 1920s. Almost overnight, it seems, Southern Indian azaleas were planted all over the city, through neighborhoods old and new. They grew so well here that many believed they must have been here for centuries. 

Tourists from around the country – movie stars in their convertibles; winter-weary New Englanders who’d never seen an azalea before; Southerners from Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta who had to settle for cold imitations – came to see the Azalea Trail in full bloom. Other cities tried to capitalize on the parade, but none could compete with Mobile, where the soils and seasons seemed made to display azaleas. 

That’s how we came to have our famous Azalea Trail Maids, and the Azalea Trail Run. That’s why we were once widely known as the Azalea City, one of America’s most beautiful garden destinations. That’s how Mobile became synonymous with the beauty of azaleas.

And so, to be frank, we found you there, under one of those beautiful azaleas. I hope that doesn’t embarrass you. It shouldn’t. It was, after all, a perfect act of love. The spring was long and sweet, as it always is on the Gulf Coast, and the colors of the azaleas across the city were dazzling, luminous, sapphire and amethyst, garnet and ruby, flowers pink as a ripe watermelon or dark as gothic burgundy, and we – your mother and I – were young and cheek to cheek.

That’s when we heard the cry, coming from the big Formosa, that famously purple Southern Indian, covered in bloom and big enough for a Mardi Gras parade to circle beneath its skirts. In the barest parting of those fragrant drapes, we could see you naked and lolling among the fallen flowers.  

We had no idea where you had come from. It was as if the magic of the city at the peak of azalea bloom had dreamed you into being. You’ve been with us ever since, and every time we look at you, we see the beauty of that old city of azaleas that inspired you, and we love you even more.  

It’s important that you know all this, because the city that begot you has almost forgotten what once made it so attractive. Azalea Trail runners still pound the pavement, but few could guess what the trail was named for. Azalea Trail Maids still twirl their neon crinoline, but imagine how gracefully they’d move if they could watch those grand old brocade belles sashay once more across our lawns.

We’ve made some effort to replant that old trail, and there’s a new world of azaleas, large or small, that can spread the magic over weeks of spring and fall. But without more support from the community, we stand to lose it all, even those grand and seemingly invincible azaleas that first brought us to the ball.

Our generation forgot. But it’s time we remembered. Our city didn’t begin with azaleas, and our gardening year need not end with them. But azaleas helped us discover where we are, what we do really well and who we are. The future of our city depends on you, our dearest foundling, my lovely little flower, heart of my heart. 

Gulf Coast Almanac

Bloom of the Month
You gotta be mighty fine to stand out in March. But right now, the bees are knocking themselves down to get to the citrus blooms. Forget the fruit. Citrus produce some of the most spectacular floral displays of spring, and the fragrance is legendary.

Signs of the Season
Robins? They’re on their way back to Detroit. Hummingbirds returning from the tropics are the sign that our spring is well underway. Look for them on the unfolding red buckeyes in the first couple of weeks of March. 

Tomatoes! Plant them as early in March as possible – NOT seeds, but 12- to 18-inch high seedlings – or you might as well wait until June. Corn, early beans, bell peppers, cukes, melons, palms and citrus are good too. But you’ll waste your time planting lettuce, collards and other cool season vegetables; these should have been planted months ago. Wait until the end of the month to plant tropicals, such as eggplant, South American peppers, basil and okra.

Think spring lawn weeds are laughing at you? Laugh back. Your lawn is dormant and not bothered by them in the least. Herbicides for spring weeds are a joke. Weeds die back at the first sign of extended dry weather and heat, whether you spray or not. Don’t enjoy that lurid first green of spring? Mow low once to restore that khaki winter luster to your lawn. 

Green Thumb Events

March 14 – 22: Azalea Bloom Out

8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Take in 250, 000 vibrant azalea blooms. Dates may vary due to weather.

Bellingrath Gardens and Home • 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore. 973-2217.

March 19 – 22: Plantasia! Spring Plant Sale

The biggest plant sale on the Gulf Coast, featuring heritage plants. Admission is free.

Mobile Botanical Gardens • 5151 Museum Dr. 342-0555 

Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.

text by Bill Finch

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