Gardening Power

Houston's cold weather cannot stop this flowery rite of spring: The Azalea Trail blooms on as it turns 80

Cold weather cannot stop flowery rite of spring: Azalea Trail roars on

Lynn Herbert, River Oaks Garden Club, A Garden Book for Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast, March 2013, azaleas Bayou Bend
River Oaks Garden Club's Azalea Trail, this spring celebrating its 80th anniversary. Photo by © Rick Gardner in memory of Mary Gardner
Bayou Bend
Bayou Bend. Courtesy photo
Rienzi, azaleas
Rienzi in full bloom. Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
News_azalea update_Bayou Bend_azaleas_white_closeup
White azaleas. Photo by Shelby Hodge
Lynn Herbert, River Oaks Garden Club, A Garden Book for Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast, March 2013, azaleas Bayou Bend
Bayou Bend
Rienzi, azaleas
News_azalea update_Bayou Bend_azaleas_white_closeup

The azaleas are here!

Despite threatening cold temps and a dreary, almost sunless start to 2015, these rites of Houston's spring are blooming just in time to herald the 80th anniversary of the River Oaks Garden Club's Azalea Trail, which will take place Friday through Sunday at seven different locations following the theme, "Celebrating for 80 Years ... Let's Dig In."

"They're looking great," Bart Brechter, curator of gardens at Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, tells CultureMap of Houston's most famous flowers. "They're not in full bloom yet, but there's lots of color and plenty of azaleas."

 "What started 80 years ago as a means to educate the people of Houston, has now become the heralding symbol for spring." 

Brechter said while azaleas aren't native to Houston, they do thrive in our environment when the mercury doesn't drop below 28 degrees and the plants are gradually warmed as we move toward spring. They usually bloom late-February through March, with some varieties even peaking through April.

Credits for bringing these delicate, paper-thin flowers to the Bayou City most commonly go to Ima Hogg, who is said to have planted the first azalea plants in Houston at her former home on the bayou, as well as to the now-closed Teas Nursery, which is noted as the first local gardening outlet to offer the perennials to customers. Now, horticulture centers throughout the area carry the well-loved bushes.

In deed, a bouquet of hundreds of thousands azaleas presenting quite the show with breathtaking blooms in shades of pink, purple, white, red and yellow seems most apropos for this oldest and continually running azalea trail in the nation.

The 2015 Trail
Trailblazers can tour two must-see public homes and garden destinations: Of course, Bayou Bend, as well as Rienzi. Admission is free to the historic Forum of Civics Building, home to the garden club and its formal gardens, where visitors are welcome to “Ask the Experts” for gardening advice.

Owners of four private homes and gardens are opening their doors and garden gates for the floral spectacular, as well.

Tour participants can enjoy this weekend-long event not only by admiring the azaleas, redbuds, dogwoods, camellias, paperwhites and tulips, but also by taking in beautiful interiors, amazing architecture and stunning landscapes. Watch for exquisite, hand-designed floral centerpieces strategically placed about, all made by members of the ROGC. 

Homes and gardens on tour are located at:

  • 2923 Del Monte Drive
  • 3401 Sleepy Hollow Court
  • 5545 Tupper Lake Drive
  • 807 Briar Ridge Drive

Tickets to take the self-guided tour are $20 for six admissions and $5 for single-site visits. Tickets are available at Randalls, Berings and at the River Oaks Garden Club, 2503 Westheimer Road, or at the entrances to the destinations on the days of the trail.

Proceeds from Azalea Trail help fund ROGC’s mission: To restore, improve and protect the quality of Houston’s environment through education, conservation and civic improvement.

DIY Trail

Or perhaps you want to start your own azalea trail to add to the festivities. Plant azaleas from the pot or balled and burlap-wrapped in the fall to give the roots sufficient time to grow in Houston's cooler months, as detailed in A Garden Book for Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast, written by Lynn M. Herbert.

Azaleas like molasses added to Houston's slightly alkaline soil, so to help stimulate the roots, water the plant with a mixture of one ounce of the sticky stuff — either horticultural molasses or store-bought cooking molasses — to a gallon of water and mulch the beds with shredded pine park, pine needles, rotted leaves or a compost of about two inches deep.

Keep the molasses ready to help the plants with their initial growth and for periodic sprayings if they look stressed. Azaleas like being well watered but not soaked, and they must have sunshine to form buds for their spring bloom. As you'll see on the official Azalea Trail, azaleas can grow into lush hedges as mass plantings, as surprise elements to mixed groupings or even as accents in large containers.

Looking back . . .  and forward
In 1927, a group of 27 residents sharing the same appreciation for horticulture — and probably all born with green thumbs — came together and organized the garden club. Eight years later, they celebrated gardening with all of Houston by hosting the first Garden Pilgrimage. That celebration later became the Azalea Trail.

"What started 80 years ago as a means to educate the people of Houston, has now become the heralding symbol for spring," the garden club notes on its Facebook page.