Each spring an almost infinite variety of azaleas dot the Houston landscape with splashes of pink, white, coral, magenta, and purple. Some bushes grow to be the size of a Volvo, while others stay small and dainty in their pots. Although azaleas, which originated in China and Japan, aren’t native plants, the flowering shrubs quickly became an H-Town staple after they were first introduced to the city by a well-heeled socialite roughly 90 years ago.
This is partly because Houston climate lends itself to the success of the shrub, Bart Brechter, head of garden and landscape operations at the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, tells Houstonia. “Azaleas are from places that have a similar climate to ours. I guess that’s why they feel at home here,” Brechter says.
The other reason these flowers are so ubiquitous? Houstonians love them. In fact, when the blooms open in March, tourists, locals, influencers, and garden connoisseurs go on pilgrimage to the Azalea Trail and other local garden spots to soak up the sight of the colorful bushes.
Unfortunately, this year’s Azalea Trail, the walking tour held by the River Oaks Garden Club each year since 1935, has been canceled because of the pandemic, but don’t despair, flower lovers. We’ve pulled together some alternative spots to take in the vibrant hues of what might as well be our city’s official flower:
The Historic Stop: Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, River Oaks
Why?: Bayou Bend was once the home of the late Houston civic leader and philanthropist Ima Hogg, and each spring its gardens are bursting with azaleas. Hogg, who possessed a green thumb and created stunning gardens on her property over the years, is credited with bringing azaleas to Houston in 1930. She ultimately cultivated 39 azalea breeds over the years.
Don’t Miss: Believe it or not, you can still see some of Hogg’s original azaleas on the property today, according to Brechter. “At the south part of our Euterpe garden, on top of a slope, there’s a group of seven Omurasaki azaleas that Miss Hogg planted in the ’30s; they stand alone and are pretty noticeable,” Brechter said. “These were the first azaleas planted in Houston.”
Admission: Adults, $7.50; Seniors and students (with ID), $6; Youth, ages 13–18, $5, Children 12 and under, free.
The Variety Stop: Hermann Park, Museum District
Why?: Of course, one of Houston’s oldest public parks boasts a wide array of azaleas and if you’re itching to see just how many ways this shrub can grow and blossom, this is the place for you. Hermann Park’s McGovern Centennial Gardens (opened in 2014 to celebrate Hermann’s 100th anniversary) alone has more than 650 varieties.
If you don’t wish to wander the grounds and let yourself happen upon the choicest shrubberies, head straight for the Woodland Garden. Most of the blooms are located there near a mass of oak and pine trees that give just enough shade for the Formosa, Marcantha, Mrs. GG Gerbing, and Wakaebisu azaleas to thrive.
The specific types on display here are no accident, according to Hermann Park’s director of operations, David Renninger. “The azalea varieties selected for the Woodland Garden represent local favorites, each with impressive springtime blooms and varying growth habits,” Renninger says.
Don’t Miss: Hermann Park’s Japanese Garden, designed by the famed Tokyo landscape architect Ken Nakajima and opened in the ’90s. Take a stroll around the Daimyo-style garden to view more azaleas alongside another spring favorite, cherry tree blossoms.
The Get-Away-From-It-All Stop: Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, Humble
Why?: Pack a picnic, travel just north of Houston, and you can easily spend a day drinking in the riotous colors of the azalea collection at this plant conservation site established more than 40 years ago by Charles and Thelma Mercer (in 1974 the horticulturally inclined couple sold their 14.5-acre property along Cypress Creek to Harris County Precinct Four at a cut rate provided their gardens would remain intact and open to the public).
The tract now encompasses more than 400 acres, including 60 acres of botanic gardens. You’ll find about 60 different colors and cultivars of azaleas spread among the main garden and the fern garden.
And keep an eye out for one of Mercer’s buzzy horticulturists, like staff member Jeff Heilers, who is ever ready to tell you everything there is to know about these cherished plants. To him the blossoms are an unmistakable sign of renewal. “That’s the real reason azaleas are so loved in Houston,” he says. “They truly are our notice that spring has arrived.”
Don’t Miss: Mercer’s trail section where azalea bushes grow as they like on the forest floor and berms.