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May 31, 2006   Email to Friend 

Azaleas are Back in Bloom
Jamie Creamer

As harbingers of spring, no plants have enjoyed as prominent a spot in the Southern landscape as azaleas.

In recent years, however, the reliable ornamentals have waned in popularity, as home gardeners and landscape professionals alike have grown disillusioned with azaleas' brief bloom times and the lack of different cultivars available to choose from.

But a study Auburn University horticulturists have under way should bring a plethora of new colors and new and improved azaleas to the market soon. The research project, headed by AU horticulture professor and Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station scientist Gary Keever, was launched in 1999 in response to Alabama nursery growers' increasing concern over weakening markets and declining prices for what had been mainstays of their industry.

"The aim of this long-term azalea evaluation is to identify and then promote new, superior azalea selections that will take Alabama's azalea industry beyond 'Coral Bells' and 'Formosa,' " Keever said. Coral Bells is the familiar compact, salmon-pink azalea and Formosa is the tall-growing, often gangly, magenta-colored cultivar so prominent in lawns and gardens in Alabama.

Included in the study are some 900 cultivars not widely available in the commercial industry. "We take cuttings of cultivars from nurserymen and other sources around the country and propagate these at the Ornamental Horticulture Research Center in Mobile," Keever said. The young shrubs then are planted at a 16-acre test site at an AAES research substation located in Tallapoosa County's Camp Hill community. The azaleas are being rated on everything from rooting success and growth rate to flowering time and cold hardiness. "It's exciting because we're finding a large number of cultivars that offer much-improved blooms, more compact size, denser growth and overall greatly enhanced landscape appeal over what we have available today," Keever said.

Throughout the study, nursery operators have visited the trial site to help identify the cultivars they find most appealing and promising. Some of the first cultivars from the evaluation could be on the market within two years, Keever said.

To see more blooms of select cultivars in the study, go to www.ag.auburn.edu/hort/ landscape/CampHillAzaleas.html.


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