Azaleas are in full bloom, and the Azalea Path Botanical Garden and Arboretum’s annual blossoming of woodland flowers is in peak color. The Azalea Path is home to one of the largest collections of azaleas in the Midwest: 80 acres filled with more than 400 varieties of azaleas nestled along the back roads of Gibson and Pike counties in southern Indiana. The forest preserve, arboretum, and botanical garden is a hidden patch of paradise about 85 miles from Bloomington.
A friendship between a UPS driver and an Evansville gynecologist/obstetrician got the Azalea Path started. Bev Knight was driving a route in the Evansville area, and one of her UPS stops was the 14-acre Holly Hills Nursery owned by Dr. Henry Schroeder, who was well known for breeding azaleas and rhododendrons. During one such stop, Schroeder asked her if she would try growing azaleas on her property. As Bev explains, “When I bought this property in 1979, he would say, ‘Are you going to go to your property this weekend?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes,’ and he’d say, ‘Take this little tray of azaleas, see how they do.’”
Schroeder had begun in 1973 to develop a series of hardy hybrid evergreen azaleas that could display an array of colorful blooms and withstand the harshest southern Indiana winters. He crossbred several thousand seedlings from various azaleas, evaluated them, selected the best varieties to pot up, and set them out to places like Knight’s property to test their hardiness.
In the spring of 1984, Schroeder’s azalea cuttings bloomed for the first time, and 37 varieties were named and registered with the American Rhododendron Society over the next year. Tragically, Schroeder was killed in a tractor accident at his nursery in August 1984. After Schroeder’s death, Knight continued to grow his azaleas, but the Holly Hills Nursery did not survive.
Word about the fertile azalea environment of Knight’s property and her passion for azaleas continued to spread. Robert E. “Buddy” Lee, a nationally known plant breeder from Louisiana and the past president of the Azalea Society of America, contacted Knight and sent her cuttings to test his hybrid when he began to develop the Encore azaleas in the 1980s. Now Knight has the complete collection of Buddy Lee’s Encore Azaleas, in addition to most of the Schroeder Azalea varieties, growing at the Azalea Path. In 2011, the Azalea Path hosted the national convention of the Azalea Society of America.
The Azalea Path Botanical Garden and Arboretum is the home of Bev and Steve Knight. The Knight’s and their family work year-round in the garden so they can share it with others. The Azalea Path, located at 1502 N. County Road 825 West in Hazleton, Indiana, is open to visitors until June 15 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Entrance fee is $5 a person, cash or check. Children ages 5 and below and nursing-home buses are free.