The National Native Azalea Collection

And the clusters of blossoms cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hillsides that suddenly opening to view from the dark shades, we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hill being set on fire. This is certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known…” [1791]
From Travel of Willian Bartram, by William Bartram. Yale University Press, 1958. 




A Storied Landscape

The idea to develop an outstanding repository of native azalea hereditary material at The North Carolina Arboretum dates back to the very beginning of the Arboretum’s formation, in the late 1980s, and has benefitted from the talents of many influential horticulturists and botanists. In 1988, interim director Dr. John Creech first proposed the collection, with consultation from expert azalea grower Dr. Henry Skinner. In 1992 the initial collection, developed by the efforts of Rich Owings and Ron Lance, was installed along the banks of Bent Creek. 

In the decades since that initial planting, the National Native Azalea Collection has cycled through periods of growth and decline: in 1995, the collection was awarded national status by the American Public Garden Association; in 2004, the site was ravaged by flood waters from Hurricane Ivan; in 2008, following years of restoration and maintenance work by the Arboretum’s Natural Areas Crew, the garden was reopened with colorful new signage installed. Most recently, in 2022, the Arboretum has hired their first Native Azalea Collection Curator, Carson Ellis.

Read more about the history of the Azalea Collection on Sprout: The Arboretum Blog:

“Off the Beaten Path: Uncovering the History of the Arboretum’s Azalea Collection”




North American Azaleas

Azaleas are slow-growing, deciduous, woody shrubs and small trees, familiar and celebrated sights in forests, on rocky mountain summits, and along waterways throughout the southeast. In gardens, they are beloved for their colorful, and often fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers.  Old-timers know them as “bush honeysuckle”, because of the shape and sweetness of their flowers, but these plants actually belong to the genus Rhododendron and are more closely related to other Ericaceous shrubs and trees of our region, like blueberry bushes and sourwood trees. In North America, there are 17 recognized species of azalea, 15 of which grow in the N.C. Arboretum’s Azalea Collection, alongside an array of selections and hybrids. 

In addition to celebrating the beauty and horticultural value of native azaleas, the N.C. Arboretum’s Azalea Collection is a conservation reservoir of their hereditary material. Some azalea species are abundant in the wild, but others are known from only few and small populations. All azaleas are put at risk by anthropogenic factors, like a changing climate and habitat destruction, making it an imperative of the Collection to safeguard their genetic diversity while it still exists.



How To Get There

The Azalea Collection is set apart from the rest of the Arboretum’s gardens and exhibits, located in a quiet patch of forest along the banks of Bent Creek. 

The easiest access is from the parking lot located beside the Arboretum’s Gatehouse. From here, guests can follow Old Mill Trail to Bent Creek Road, walking upstream for about one mile, until they arrive at the bridge to the Azalea Collection on their left. 

Guests who park at the Baker Visitor Center may choose to take the Natural Garden Trail to Running Cedar Road. From here, a left onto Bent Creek Road will lead to the Azalea Collection entry bridge.

Guests to the National Native Azalea Collection can familiarize themselves with the N.C. Arboretum’s property map to help plan their visit.