In Summerville, azaleas are as abundant--dare I say--as the pine pollen. I apologize for the analogy, but as quantity goes, I think you will afford me some latitude and forgive me. I could have said mosquitoes. None-the-less, all Summervillians will appreciate my candor. Now, let's get back to the beloved azalea. Every March/April, thanks to the azalea, the town and its surrounding landscape comes to life with a cache of vibrant color at every turn of its winding roads. Although, with the recent milder winters, it seems more like February/March--unfortunate for the Flowertown Festival. However, the present day spring-time azalea exhibition everyone has come to know and enjoy at one time in the not so distant past was not the case, particularly for a certain variety that had its beginnings in the Ashley River Lowcountry.
Azaleas are members of the heath (Ericaceae) family, an ancient group of plants dating to 70 million years ago. They are related to rhododendrons, blueberries and pieris (also known as the Lily of the Valley shrub). According to one source, there are at least 26 species of azaleas native to North America, but most azaleas we are familiar with today are descended from Asian shrubs.
The Asian azalea came to the United States via England. Seeds of the Rhododendron luteum were transported to England from the shores of the Black Sea where they became parent to many of the well known azalea hybrids.
According to azalea historian Fred Galle, in the United States, Azalea Indica (specifically speaking about the group of plants called Southern Indicas) got its name because at the time it was discovered, Asia was known as the East Indies. The first hybrids were planted in Charleston, South Carolina.
In the 1830's, John Grimke Drayton imported the Azalea Indica from Philadelphia--where they were grown only in greenhouses by a nurseryman who also had a branch nursery in Charleston--and introduced them into the estate gardens of his rice plantation on the Ashley River. His garden was the first in America to plant azaleas outdoors. First-time onlookers were stunned by the beauty. By 1845, Magnolia Plantation had the largest and oldest flourishing collection of hybrid Indicas.
In the years to follow, already known as a retreat for Lowcountry residents seeking to escape the subtropical heat and disease of the summer, the newly established Town of Summerville would become recognized for its beauty and serenity. In 1888, it was named one of two most healthful places in the world for victims of lung disease due to the benefits of its pine scented mild climate. However, flourishing beneath the needled branches of the town's famous turpentine pines, Magnolia's Indica Azalea shrub was spilling its voluminous clusters of brilliance across the town's changing landscape. Since the 1890s, tourists now came to Summerville not only for its aromatic trees, but also to witness the spring phenomenon called the azalea bloom, which attributed to the local Chamber of Commerce to adopt the slogan "Flower Town in the Pines" in 1925.
In 1932, Grange Cuthbert became mayor of Summerville. He came up with the plan of taking some of the land deeded to Summerville by the "Civic League" between Central Avenue and Magnolia Street and turning it into a mid-town paradise. To turn the park into a paradise, flowers were needed, lots of flowers. This is where George Segelken, owner of the Summerville Floral Nursery, entered the story. George was very excited about the project and the opportunity of supplying the flower he was propagating on his nursery. He was a pioneer in the propagation of azaleas.
George enthusiastically agreed to donate his azaleas to the new park with the understanding that if anyone wanted to purchase the plants, he would dig them up. Through his efforts, he helped popularize azaleas throughout South Carolina--Southern Indicas were relatively unknown in South Carolina.
When the mid-town park was finished in 1935, it was deservedly named Azalea Park. In the spring, tourists flocked to the park from all over the state. Bumper to bumper traffic lines on a Sunday afternoon were a common sight. The visiting sightseers freely immersed themselves in the great sea of color unleashed by the Park's 33,000 azalea plants--a scene found in only one other place in South Carolina, the Magnolia Plantation.
Recognized as the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry and the oldest public gardens in America, Magnolia Plantation has been open to visitors since 1870. Their goal was to share the beauty and splendor of its famous gardens, thus affording them the opportunity to gaze upon the thousands of beautiful flowers and plants, specifically the thousands of rare azaleas that vigorously spilled their blossoms from the edges of its winding trails, ponds, and marshes.
In recent years, Magnolia Plantation has been working to locate and preserve its older azalea varieties for future generations to enjoy. In 2010, they identified 15 varieties of Indian Azaleas previously thought to be extinct. They are being propagated to share with other preservation-minded gardens across the nation.
Since azaleas were native to North America, it is difficult to say what variety of the deciduous plant was seen by the first visitors to the pine-forested ridge that became Summerville. Photography, as of yet had not been developed, so hard evidence in the way of pictures is impossible. I don't know if any old landscape paintings of the flower growing in pre-Summerville exist. However, preserved historic documentation, as outlined in this article taken from various sources, reveals 40 of the 86 original selections of the Southern Indica and their descendants, seen gracing more landscapes and byways in the Middle, Lower, and Coastal South than any other shrub, were propagated outdoor for the first time just a stones throw from Summerville.
An interesting side note:
A Chinese folktale says that a long-ago king was assassinated and turned into a cuckoo. Because of the king's violent death, the cuckoo sang so bitterly that blood came from his bill. April is the time of the cuckoo's cries and brilliant red azalea blooms, thus the legend says the cuckoo dyed the flowers red.