June 2015
Homeplace & Community

A Woodland Beauty

 
  Two different varieties of Florida Flame bloom brightly.

Couple’s Enthusiasm for Azaleas Takes Root

Walking the woods in Alabama’s springtime proves to be a time of glorious awakening and discovery. Fresh new leaves unfurl on forest trees and plants. Leaf colors vary from vivid chartreuse to deep shades of green. Discovering the forests’ trees and plants in bloom elevates the experience. As Alabama’s last frosty winter mornings fade, spring beauty blooms in the woodland with white dogwood, pink redbud and colorful native azaleas. After winter’s chill, the bright colors of spring share hope and new life with all.

When the east Alabama couple first purchased property in Lee County, they spent hours on the land, carving out trails, identifying trees and making plans for their future home. After work and on the weekends, Kira Bowen and John Torbert invested hours of sweat equity. What was once terraced cropland for cotton and corn many plantings ago had grown up over time into an early successional forest with numerous hardwoods and spotty pines. Pockets of forestland had been clear-cut and left to regenerate in whatever species previously grew or found their way to the site.

 
Kira Bowen and John Torbert grow thousands of native azaleas for their wholesale nursery Southern Native Azaleas.  

"John needed to map the property and identify the trees," Bowen explained. "He wanted to inventory what we had, put a management plan into place and create trails for us to enjoy the land."

A couple of miles of trails on the 160-acre property were all hacked and hand-cut by Torbert with his machete. Bowen tells the story of how they were clearing an area one wintry afternoon.

"I told him not to cut a particular grouping of understory trees because they were all native azaleas," Bowen shared. "We flagged the area to revisit in the spring. Sure enough, the bushes bloomed, and John fell in love."

With their elegant blooms and sweetly pleasant fragrance, native azaleas, often referred to as wild honeysuckle bush, are a favorite of many Southerners. Found in drains, hollows and other wooded areas throughout Alabama, deciduous native azaleas favor acidic, well-drained soil with ample organic matter. Preferring filtered sunlight, the plants increase flowering with a mix of sun and shade. Their woodland beauty and graceful appearance is truly delightful to those who see the bush in bloom.

 
  Kira Bowen inspects the small seeds of native azaleas. Shelves of seedlings take root and grow.

Torbert’s infatuation with native azaleas was confirmed as he began buying and bringing home pickup truckloads of native azaleas purchased at nurseries throughout the region.

"There are seven to 10 species of native azaleas that are in their natural range and will thrive in Lee County," Torbert explained. "Theoretically, with a variety of species, we could have native azaleas blooming from early spring to late summer/early fall. I wanted blooms all spring and summer long!"

After the third or fourth truckload, Bowen declared a moratorium on future purchases, telling Torbert she would learn to propagate them.

Because of Bowen’s knowledge of all things plant-related, Torbert took her word for it. In college at Penn State, Bowen studied plant science. She followed her undergraduate degree with a master’s of science in plant pathology at University of Minnesota and earned a Ph.D. in the same from University of Illinois. A professor at Auburn University’s College of Agriculture since the late 1980s, Torbert felt confident that if anyone could learn to grow native azaleas, Bowen could!

With their new venture, his experience was an asset as well. Torbert studied Forestry and Wildlife Management at Virginia Tech, where he earned his undergraduate degree. While working in the Forestry Department at Virginia Tech, he earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in Forest Soils. As a soil scientist, Torbert worked 20 years for Mead Coated Board and later MeadWestvaco. His knowledge of soil-specific forest management with a focus on improved growth and yield is extensive and well-known throughout the forest industry. Between the two of them, the couple could not only grow the plants but also figure out how to do it best!

While several species of native azaleas (Piedmont, Florida Flame, Oconee, Alabama) with varying colors started blooming in March and April in Alabama, more species will bloom in mid- to late-spring and into the summer: Coastal, Swamp, Pinxterbloom, Sweet and, finally, the bright red Plumleaf azalea.  

Bowen and Torbert worked together to cultivate more native azaleas. They increased their number of plants by micro-propagation, seed germination and rooted cuttings. Micro-propagation is basically the art and science of plant multiplication in vitro (in a test tube, a culture dish or somewhere outside of a living organism). For seed germination, Bowen collects seeds from their plants and grows them in a controlled environment. She sees germination in about three weeks under ideal circumstances. Rooting shoot cuttings from their plants, Bowen and Torbert use a hormone accelerator to encourage cuttings of their azaleas to root. Bowen also experiments with crossing flowers of different species to create new hybrids.

Throughout their property, they planted various species of native azaleas. From their back porch, looking across the lake, they view several colors in early spring and throughout the blooming season into late summer/early fall. When asked about their favorites, Torbert prefers the brightly colored varieties while Bowen claims the fragranced versions are her favorites.

This couple’s enthusiasm for the native azalea has definitely taken root and flourished. Their passion has now grown into a wholesale nursery operation with the forming of the company Southern Native Azaleas. With thousands of plants in 1-gallon and 3-gallon pots, and more being micro-propagated, germinated by seed and rooted by cuttings, the future of their operation is sure to branch out beyond East Alabama. For more information on Bowen and Torbert’s azaleas, visit www.southernnativeazaleas.com, or contact John Torbert at 334-750-1930 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Ashley Smith is a freelance writer from Russell County.