Azaleas Across the South

These pink, red, white, yellow and purple blossoms herald spring with a special brilliance. The peak blooming time for azaleas in the South extends from February to May and June for Texas and the Gulf Coast; and April to June in Virginia and North Carolina. Many towns hold azalea festivals to welcome the masses of color. With some planning, you can visit azalea trails or a festival or formal gardens within hours of your home. Even your neighbor's garden or your own yard can reveal a colorful display.

Florida's climate means a longer blooming season for colorful plants. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon called Florida "Land of Flowers," and the description still fits today. Florida gardens are filled with azalea beauty from as early as January through March. Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven has an outstanding display. This garden is known as "America's Tropical Wonderland." Here azaleas grow amidst rare and exotic plants from throughout the world. Gardens are open year-round.

Ravine Gardens in Palatka, about 50 miles south of Jacksonville, is an 80-acre natural garden. Azaleas bloom there from January through March in a rustic setting along a natural ravine. An azalea festival, similar to Wilmington's festival, is held annually.

Ponce de Leon Springs is eight miles north of Deland. This beautiful 54-acre park features azaleas and other shrubs and trees. Many species of birds, including peacocks, roam the grounds.

The River Oaks Garden Club of Houston and the city of Tyler, Tex., annually hold azalea trails. The Big Ticket, a lush wooded region of east Texas, is known for its profusion of wild azaleas. People who own wooded areas often transplant wild azaleas to their gardens and neighborhood roadsides.

Natchez, Miss., and New Orleans each boast restored gardens featuring azaleas at antebellum homes. The outstanding sites for azaleas blooming in Louisiana include Afton Villa Gardens north of St. Francisville, Hodges Gardens near Many, and the campus of Centenary College in Shreveport.

While there are no commercial azalea gardens in Arkansas, wild azaleas are abundant, and civic clubs often provide special bus tours to view them. The Ozark Society, a statewide canoeing-conservation club, annually sponsors a spring azalea bus tour to the wild azalea fields near Raspberry Knob in the Ozark Mountains. The bus tour is timed to enjoy the blooming azaleas as well as blooming dogwoods and redbuds along the route.

At Mynelle Gardens in Jackson, Miss., thousands of azaleas and other plants and shrubs line rustic paths in spring. Early spring is the peak blossom time for azaleas here. A large artificial lake is located in the center of the garden, giving a mirror-like reflection of colorful blooms. Many historic Mississippi homes hold gardens that come alive with azalea color in the spring. Special pilgrimage events are held in the cities of Natchez, Vicksburg, Holly Springs, Jackson and Columbus.

Mobile, Ala., holds an annual Azalea Trail in February and March. Winding through a magnificent, flower-lined 35-mile route in and around the port city, the trail is part of the city's own Mardi Gras, a colorful three-week long celebration climaxed by street parades and general festivals on Shrove Tuesday.

At Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, 250,000 azalea plants including 200 different varieties create a blaze of color among the many Spanish moss-hung oak trees.

Afton Villa Gardens surrounds the area where Afton Villa, one of the most elegant homes built in Louisiana, once stood. Lavish care is given the gardens and grounds of the antebellum home. The grounds today are just as they were 100 years ago. The sunken garden with seven terraces is laced with century-old azaleas. Thousands of cultivated and wild azaleas and other plants turn the rugged terrain of Hodges Gardens into an enchanted spring wonderland.

Kurume azaleas, including coral bells, snow, Hinodeiri and Hino-supreme usually are found in full bloom in March. Large-blossomed Indicas peak in early April, followed by Glendales and Macranthas. Equally as beautiful are foaming masses of wild azaleas, the pink honeysuckle of sandy hills, which spill into narrow ravines, beside roadways, in deep clefts of rocks and along streams in hollows.

Centenary College's campus holds about four acres of azaleas. Foot-bridges and a cool-looking fountain provide picturesque touches to this scene of azalea beauty.

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