On the Azalea Trail

Mobile, Alabama is known as The Azalea City, and the evergreen azaleas for which it is famous are an indispensable part of the city’s character.

But don’t be misled. This spring explosion of blooms is a relatively new tradition. The evergreen azalea is not native to the area. These oriental plants were imported during the 1920s to create a tourist attraction.

“On the Azalea Trail,” a documentary produced and directed by Max Shores for Alabama Public Television in 2000, tells about the flowering of tourism based on Mobile’s flora and fauna and the development of the area’s horticultural industry.

Sam Lackland, a Mobile businessman, spearheaded an effort to add Mobile to the annual Azalea Trail that brought Northern tourists to Southeastern cities.  To encourage residents to plant azaleas, gas stations gave away a plant with every tank of gas.  After a few years, azaleas were planted all over Mobile and thousands of tourists came each year to see them.

The Southern Indian azaleas that were planted in Mobile could not grow in the Northern states from whence the annual pilgrims came, but hybrid varieties produced in the 1950s could.  When people who had come to see Mobile’s azaleas had the opportunity to plant similar ornamentals in their own gardens, the tourist attraction faded, but “On the Azalea Trail” shows that the legacy of the Azalea Trail continues in Mobile today.

Bellingrath Gardens was a showcase on the Azalea Trail.  Owned by Walter Bellingrath, one of the earliest bottlers of Coca-Cola, the land was originally a fishing camp, but Bellingrath’s wife liked to garden.  At Sam Lackland’s suggestion, Bessie Bellingrath directed the planting of azaleas and this rural retreat became a spectacular tourist attraction.  It continues to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

The nursery business is one of Mobile’s largest industries and azaleas are a major product.  Most Mobile area nurseries produce azaleas of oriental origin, but Dodd and Dodd Nursery, operated by a third generation nursery family, is producing hybrids of azaleas that are native to the U.S.  These beautiful plants are gaining popularity among gardeners who shirk the Victorian idea that imported plants must be better than native plants.

The wide variety of blooming plants from around the world is featured at an annual flower show in Mobile. The Providence Foundation Festival of Flowers is held each March, the traditional peak of the annual Azalea Trail, and it carries on the tradition of encouraging people to create beautiful gardens.  Entire gardens of breathtaking beauty are displayed under a huge tent at the event.

Bill Finch, environmental editor for the Mobile Register, provides historical information in “On the Azalea Trail.”  Also featured are Dr. William Barrick, Executive Director of the Bellingrath Gardens and Home, Tommy and Thayer Dodd of Dodd and Dodd Nursery, and Randy Battiste, Executive Director of the Providence Foundation.

The documentary was broadcast as part of The Alabama Experience series, a production of The University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio.