The Azalea Festival is Bloomin’ Beautiful

Written By: Diana Matthews

Azalea Garden Tour is April 13-15

“We didn’t have azaleas when I was growing up in Indiana,” said Barbara Downing. “We didn’t have camellias blooming in December and January, either. I so appreciate the things that grow here.”

     Barbara Downing is Media and Communications Chair of the hard-working Cape Fear Garden Club (CFGC), which presents Wilmington’s Azalea Garden Tour every April. Almost 300 of the club’s members help carry out the event. Cathy Poulos is the current club president.


Poulos chose “celebrating Southern beauty” as the theme of her service as president this year, and the annual tour is one of many ways CFGC does just that.

     Over the 65 years of the tour, club members have raised almost $1.2 million, which they have invested in projects to beautify the Cape Fear region, preserve wildlife and educate the public.

     When Downing moved to Wilmington in 1979, Wilmington was called the “city of a million azaleas.”

     Thousands of those azaleas had been planted by her predecessors in CFGC, one of the oldest garden clubs in North Carolina. “We’ll be celebrating our hundredth anniversary in 2025,” she said.

     During the years between the world wars, the club created garden spaces for public enjoyment. Along with the WPA, they added cultivated azaleas to the wild native azaleas already growing in Greenfield Park and established the park’s fragrance garden for the benefit of veterans who had been blinded by poison gas overseas.

     Cape Fear Garden Club held its first Azalea Garden Tour in 1953. The theme of the 2018 tour is “Bloomin’ Beautiful!”

     Activities will begin at Greenfield Park’s amphitheater at 10 a.m. Friday, April 13, with a ribbon cutting and the presentation of the Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Belles, accompanied by the Citadel Summerall Guard. The Azalea Festival Queen and her court will attend, along with other festival celebrities. The garden club will serve homemade cookies and lemonade at the Queen’s Garden Party at the conclusion of the event.

     Nine private gardens and the Cape Fear Museum’s rain garden will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 13-15. Airlie Gardens will be open as part of the tour Saturday and Sunday only. Locations on the tour range from the historic downtown to the country club and university areas. Azalea Belles will greet arriving visitors at each tour site.

How to Cultivate Southern Beauty

     For good advice, CFGC members say they rely on the book Growing a Beautiful Garden: A Landscape Guide for the Coastal Carolinas, by horticulturalist Henry Rehder Jr.

     Rehder provides month-by-month instructions for cultivating the two most popular azalea categories: Indica (or Indian) azaleas and Kurume azaleas.

     “Hundred-year-old (Indica) plants thrive in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington as well as the historical districts,” Rehder says, “and many specimen plants can be found in ordinary places.”

     The recipe for healthy azaleas, Rehder explains, is rich, slightly acid soil, even moisture, and filtered sunlight or light shade. Early spring is the time for fertilizing. Any pruning should be done immediately after blooming ceases; the plants begin to make next year’s buds during the summer. Through the growing season, the gardener needs to protect the plants from drought and azalea-munching caterpillars. Fortunately, the red-and-black marked larvae are easy to defeat using a solution of liquid dish detergent and water.

     Rehder recommends obtaining a soil test in the fall, amending the soil according to results and mulching the plants with pine straw.

     The Azalea Festival committee and CFGC joined forces to create a short video describing best practices for growing healthy azaleas. Actress and Jester’s Café owner Sydney Penny is one of the featured gardeners on the video. Penny was Azalea Queen in 1999 and is the chair of this year’s tour.

     “It is a first for our club and the festival,” said Downing, “to have a former Queen back as a garden club member and a committee chair.”

The Azalea Family

     Azaleas belong to the Rhododendron genus of shrubs. Wild native azaleas are deciduous and send out blooms on bare stems in the spring, with leaves following. Native azaleas bloom in shades of yellow and gold.

     Cultivated types of azaleas suitable for the Coastal Plain include Indica, Kurume, Satsuki, and Encore. All are evergreen and bloom in white, pink, red and purple.

     Indica azaleas have very large flowers and leaves on large, evergreen bushes. Vigorous growers, Indicas should be planted where they have room to reach a mature size of at least six feet high and five feet wide.

      Kurume azalea bushes grow as large as Indicas but less rapidly. Their leaves and flowers are smaller; the blooming period is longer, and they have good pest resistance, says Rehder.

     Two types of azaleas not mentioned in Growing a Beautiful Garden are Satsukis and Encores. Satsuki azaleas are small and dense-growing. Because they bloom later in the spring than other types, they are less vulnerable to being ruined by an early April frost.

      Encore hybrid azaleas, developed in the 1980s, tolerate four to six hours of sunshine a day and bloom two or three times per year.

Planting for the Future

     Since the “million azaleas” days, says Downing, “we’ve lost a lot due to development and new roads.”

     Hoping to regain the million mark, CFGC partners with the New Hanover Parks Conservancy and Encore Azaleas to promote “Plant An Azalea Week” the first week in April.

     CFGC members invite community members to help them plant azaleas in public spaces as well as in their home gardens.

      To have an azalea planted at Hugh McRae Park or Greenfield Park this year, sponsors only need to donate $15. The donor may designate the planting in honor or in memory of a friend or loved one, and a card will be sent to the recipient that the donor specifies.

      Cape Fear Garden Club returns the money it earns to the community in the form of grants for beautification, conservation and educational projects. Funding from the Azalea Garden Tour also supports the North Carolina Audubon Society work on Battery Island bird sanctuary and endowed scholarships to UNC-Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College.  

     Tour tickets are $25 and may be purchased now at, or at local ticket sellers listed on the website. Tickets are valid for all three days of the tour. Children under 12 are admitted free with an accompanying adult. The Cape Fear Garden Club is also on Facebook at