Legacy Project Page

Varnadoe Azaleas

‘Varnadoe's Orange’
Azalea ‘Varnadoe's Orange’, Photo by Randolph Maphis

Legacy Lead: Kevin McCorkle ⇐ Click to send Kevin an email

Hybridizer: Aaron Varnadoe
Aaron Varnadoe was born in 1920 in Worth County, near Sylvester, Georgia; the first child of Clem and Inez Varnadoe. Clem was an uneducated tenant farmer and mere survival of his family was an all-consuming task. Fineries and frivolities were literally unknown. Aaron's own education abruptly ended in the seventh grade when he had to go to work to help support the family. However, Aaron's quest for knowledge and his hunger to learn did not end with his formal education. His seventh-grade books, that he had picked cotton to buy, stayed packed safely away in a trunk until very late in his life; unused treasures that symbolized his love of learning and his desire to complete his education. Perhaps it was his dream that one day he could return to those books he had abandoned for his family so many years before. Throughout his adult life, Aaron frequently managed to obtain newspapers, magazines, books, and anything else he could use to quench his insatiable thirst for knowledge. As a sharecropper, his economic state of affairs was not much better than that of his childhood yet he always managed to find something to read.1

A tragic farm accident in 1959, that nearly cost Aaron his life, forced him to leave the farm and seek other ways to support his wife and six children. Aaron's farming background and his inherent love of plants made a nursery seem a good fit. With the help of the Georgia Rehabilitation Services, Varnadoe Nursery and Garden Center was opened in Colquitt, Georgia in 1960. It was in this venue that Aaron's real talents began to shine.1

An appreciation for native plants and native azaleas in particular proved to be the catalyst for a successful career as a plantsman. Aaron collected seed as well as took stem cuttings from native azaleas around the South Georgia area. After many tries he became proficient in producing these difficult to propagate plants. Dr. Fred Galle, curator of Callaway Gardens and Mr. Paul Hjort, a third-generation nurseryman (Thomasville Nurseries), encouraged Aaron to produce native azaleas in quantity and offer them for sale to the public.1

It is likely Aaron Varnadoe collected, hybridized, and propagated more superior varieties of early blooming deciduous azaleas than any of his counterparts. Specializing in cutting and seedling grown Rhododendron austrinum, R. canescens and R. flammeum, he later began hybridizing between the three species and grew countless thousands of seedlings over the years. From these seedlings, he made selections based on rootability and unusual colors.2

Tallahassee hybridizer Kelly Strickland and plantsman friend Al Burke spent many hours with Aaron Varnadoe searching for "the perfect azalea". They often frequented the Varnadoe Nursery early in the morning every few days in order to be the first to see new blooms and make possible selections. Al Burke always believed the real secret to Varnadoe's success in propagating natives had a great deal to do with the purity of the well water at his home where he did his propagation work. Varnadoe could root his native azaleas in sharp sand alone, but carefully monitored his babies the entire rooting time. According to Al Burke, Aaron Varnadoe was "The Dean of Native Azaleas".3

1. Varnadoe, David. Gals Goin' to Meeting, unpublished

2. Towe, L. Clarence. "Deciduous Azaleas: Springtime in the South" Journal American Rhododendron Society Volume 55, No. 2 (Spring 2001)

3. Coleman, Joe. "The Kelly Strickland Azaleas-An Exceptional Collection" The Azalean Volume 33, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

Varnadoe Nursery
Photo by David Varnadoe

Aaron Varnadoe
Photo by David Varnadoe

Varnadoe Nursery
Photo by David Varnadoe

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