Azalea Watch

By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Callaway Gardens

Azaleas bloom prolifically throughout the South in March, but few places can match the profusion of colors that encircle Callaway Resort and Gardens.

The banks of hot pink, white, and red azaleas along the pathways and bicycle trails in Callaway Resort and Gardens are unforgettable. More than 20 years after my first of many visits to the 2,500-acre attraction in Pine Mountain, Georgia, I still remember weaving through those wooded trails that are lined with thousands of the flowering shrubs.
On that first trip to Callaway Gardens, I primarily wanted to ride my bicycle along the more-than 10 miles of trails that crisscross the property, but the azaleas took center stage – as they do with most springtime visitors. And there’s a good reason the azalea blooms are memorable – a stroke of geographical luck.
“Geographically speaking it’s because we sit on the fall line where the coastal plain and Appalachian foothills meet,” explains Pam Bauer, Callaway’s director of Brand Development and Marketing. “The overstory of trees provide just the right amount of sun and shade for the azaleas.”
More than 20,000 azalea bushes will explode this month with one of the world’s largest displays of native and cultivated azaleas. The “azalea watch” is a big deal for Callaway fans who plan their visits to catch the peak blooms, which often last for several weeks. In Georgia, peak season is historically mid-March through mid-April.
“Peak days vary within that timeframe each year, of course, based on the whims of Mother Nature,” says Bauer. “For instance, rainy or warm winters can affect bloom times, but according to horticulturalists we’re on track for a traditional bloom season in 2019.”
Guests and garden buffs are advised to “stay tuned” to the online azalea watch on the website if visiting on a “peak” day is a priority. Interestingly, peak days can also vary slightly between Callaway’s two famous azalea gardens, the Overlook Azalea Garden & Trails and Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl because they were planted at different times.
“Overlook is our more established, original garden planted prior to Callaway Gardens opening to the public in 1952, whereas the 40-acre Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl was dedicated and opened in 1999,” says Bauer. “Our native azaleas continue to bloom through spring and into early summer which provide so much color throughout the woodland gardens.”
Summer visitors will enjoy the Plumleaf (Prunifolia) native azalea which blooms into July and is the pride and joy of the gardens.
“It’s the inspiration of our flower emblem in our logo and an important part of why Callaway Gardens exists in this very spot of Georgia,” Bauer says.
Across the state in Augusta, people will notice the azaleas at the Masters Golf Tournament in early April. Bauer points out that Augusta and Callaway Gardens are on the same fall line and get peak blooms at the same time. One thing Augusta gets that Callaway Gardens doesn’t: television coverage during azalea season.
Not everyone can take a stroll or bike ride through Augusta National Golf Club, but they can in Callaway Gardens, which Bauer contends has the prettier blooms. In fact, more than 750,000 people visit the gardens annually to enjoy the natural landscape that became a public garden in May 1952. Founders Cason and Virginia Callaway wanted to create a place where humans and nature could abide together. More than six decades later, their personal retreat continues to offer solace, inspiration, and discovery to those who visit. It’s also become a place where education takes place all year long with classes, workshops, lectures, demonstrations, guided hikes and many special events.

Special events this spring will include the day-long Callaway Gardening School on March 22. Expert gardeners will talk about home gardening and growing tips and tricks, particularly appropriate since Virginia Callaway was enamored with the native azaleas on her property.
“Callaway Gardens has been known for its fabulous spring azalea gardens for years,” says Patricia Collins, who served for 53 years as the director of gardens and has volunteered to coordinate the Gardening School event. “One of the Gardening School speakers talk about native azaleas and offer tips on how home gardeners can have native azaleas blooming from March through August or September.”
Other special events include the annual “Sip & Savor Spring” wine tastings and celebrity chef dinner with three James Beard Foundation award winners on March 28-31; weekend photography workshops; and a Symphony on the Sand concert in April at the Robin Lake beach inside Callaway Gardens.
It’s best to check the events calendar on the Callaway Gardens website because something is always happening. The Birds of Prey shows have become one of the most popular attractions all year long. During the holidays, the Fantasy of Lights is a Southern tradition that has been named to National Geographic’s Top 10 Light Displays in the world. And any time of year, the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center is another must-see attraction inside the gardens.
Visitors who can’t make peak azalea season need not worry; they will find plenty to see and do. Amateur photographer Eileen Sklon visited in July on her way back to Florida from the Biltmore Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina. Callaway Gardens was a mid-way break during the long drive.
“I didn’t know anything about it [Callaway Gardens], but my husband, Ron, knew I loved gardens,” says Sklon. “We stopped and spent a couple of days there at the main lodge.”
Although the flowering plants were not as abundant as in spring, the Sklons enjoyed the wooded trails and the butterfly center.
“We stayed near the lake, and I got a lot of pictures in that area, some right from our balcony which overlooked one of the gardens” she says.
Staying onsite at the resort is a relaxing retreat where guests can enjoy a spa, a golf course, farm-to-table restaurants, and access to bicycles and golf carts to explore the trails. Adventurers will find a zip-line course that offers options for everyone, including children. Several resort packages are available throughout the year.
Driving along the scenic road or trekking through the nature trails inside Callaway Gardens inspires visitors to appreciate the legacy of Virginia and Cason Callaway. Their vision 66 years ago to connect both man and nature in a positive way became a reality and one of the South’s most treasured attractions.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.