Abundant Azaleas


W03May2016

I am named for my father’s sister, Ruth Happel Smiley, who for most of her life worked on the gardens at Mohonk Mountain House in upstate NY. I am very much her namesake, as her love of gardening, nature and photography inspired my own interests. However, I don’t have the luxury of gardening for a resort, and sometimes tire of my tiny and unkempt garden.

When I want the inspiration of a grand garden, my favorite is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Perhaps best known for the enormous Gilded Age mansion, the largest privately owned house in the US, I generally bypass this opulent home and head straight to the gardens. Vanderbilt hired Frederick Law Olmsted, also known for developing Central Pak, to shape the grounds. In 1890 Olmsted hired Chauncey Beadle, who like my aunt trained in horticulture at Cornell. Beadle worked tirelessly for almost 60 years on all aspects of the gardens, but his passion was native azaleas, which he referred to as his children. In 1940 he donated his entire collection of over 3000 plants to Biltmore, one of the most complete collections of native azaleas in the world. At that time it included 15 species in many different forms and hybrids.

Today this native collection occupies 7 of the 15-acre azalea garden, constantly updated in keeping with historical records along with newly available plants, a mix of native and cultivated plants. It is usually in flower from late April through May, and this year I caught it at an extraordinary moment of peak bloom. I had to wait quite a while to get this shot without anyone else in it. But though the crowds were obstacles to photographing the pristine scene I wanted to capture, the appreciative visitors added to the garden’s charm. We were all enjoying a glorious afternoon in a world magically transformed by color and light, a living painting created uniquely by this year’s weather, and over 100 years of gentle shaping by generations of gardeners. Like all great gardens, this one takes the best of the wild world and builds a creation shaped purposely for our esthetic enjoyment, a kaleidoscopic harmony of people and nature.