The signature plant of the front line of the Ruby Mize and Gayla Mize Gardens at SFA is an azalea named ‘Koromo shikibu’. This unique “spider azalea’ features purplish-pink strappy flowers with 1 1/2 inch long and ½ inch wide petals with darker spots at the base. The variety produces produce a good number of blooms “out of season”, primarily in the Fall. While never touted for its fragrance, and unlike most indica azaleas, ‘Koromo shikibu’ does have a distinct sweet smell especially if you put your head right into the mass of flowers. In recent years, others have finally recognized its value and it was given the prestigious “Rhododendron of the Year Plant Award” in 2015 by the American Rhododendron Society.
SFA’s colors are purple and white so when we were deciding what azalea to line the front of the Ruby Mize Garden, ‘Koromo shikibu’ came to mind. Barbara Stump, our then Azalea Garden designer and implementer, though it was a great candidate for this 880′ long front line. I agreed. It had flowered well across the creek in the Mast Arboretum, a single plant we had planted in 1988 in a collection of azaleas and Japanese maples in an area we named “Asian Valley”. Our original plant was acquired from Margie Jenkins, Amite, Louisiana, and when the Ruby Mize Garden began in 1997, we went back to her with an order. Margie became the mother of the hundreds of plants needed for the project.
‘Koromo shikibu’ one-gallon plants were planted on the inside of a rustic cedar rail fence where they remain to this day. Under sprinkler irrigation and on a slope with great drainage, they took off. Over a decade later, when the Mize family, led by the patriarch Ray Mize, created the endowment for the Gayla Mize Garden, it was a no brainer, we just had to plant more. This created a perfect mirror image on both sides of the wide expanse of University Drive planted to the variety.
The exact parentage of ‘Koromo Shikibu’ remains a mystery. Most often it’s considered a hybrid with R. macrosepalum (the large-sepaled azalea’) with the pollen parent unknown. Still, there’s confusion on nomenclature. In the past, it was listed as Rhododendron linearifolium var macrosepalum, the Spider Azalea, and was renamed R. stenopetalum ‘Linearifolium’. A recent attempt at nomenclature sees the plant as a variety of ‘Linearifolium’, the Lavender Spider Azalea, and ‘Koromo shikibu’ is now more commonly designated as the cultivar, R. macrosepalum ‘Koromo Shikibu’, and no longer considered to be a unique strain of R. stenopetalum. My conclusion is I don’t know and I’m not sure I care, so I’ve taken to calling the plant Rhododendron X ‘Koromo shikibu’. You decide. The difference between a horticulturist, a forester and a botanist is simple to understand. Horticulturists like to grow plants and enjoy them. Foresters like to grow plants and cut them down. Botanists like like to huddle in rooms, talk about plants and rename them to annoy foresters and horticulturists. End of story.
There are a couple of forms of ‘Koromo shikibu’ worthy of a place in the Gulf South Garden. One is ‘Koromo White’. No one is exactly sure where the origin of this plant derived but one source suggests it was developed by Dave Wagner in Burtonsville, Maryland, and was modestly distributed as “Wagner’s White Spider #1”. I’ve seen the plant called ‘white princess’ as well. Evidently, those two names have never really stuck. It’s mostly sold as ‘Koromo White’. Whatever the name, it’s a great plant with the same bloom characteristics, modest fragrance and habit of ‘Koromo shikibu’.
Finally, there’s the SFA Gardens introduction, ‘Speckled Spider’. This unusual sport first appeared in 2010 in the 880‟ long line of ‘Koromo Shikibu’ spider azaleas that define the front of the Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden. Spotted first by Duke Pittman, technician for the garden, the big branch sport appeared as a bright beacon against the darker blooms of ‘Koromo Shikibu’. This variety has been propagated and sold under a number of names, including ‘Margie’s Speckled Spider’, a name I deemed best. However, I guess that was just too long and that name is gone. It’s commonly seen as just ‘Speckled spider’. It has all the blooming characteristics, fragrance and habit of it’s parent.
To complicate things, eagle eye Duke Pittman spotted another sport in the spring 2017. This one was found in the long line of Koromo shikibus of the Gayla Mize Garden. It’s actually a bit different than ‘Speckled Spider’ and features no striping and primarily white petals with a few purple splotches. Whether this holds up and stays stable after we take cuttings in June 2017, I don’t know. Time will tell.
Like in life, some things work out in gardening, some don’t. This one worked out. In the spring, the two front lines on University Drive are a fender bender display of purple blooms. Over the years we’ve discovered the plants tolerates sun, drought and the challenges of its Texas home. The “out of season” blooming can vary from a little to a lot. In fact, we’ve noticed late November and December flowers so heavy we worried that the subsequent spring show might be shorted. Nope, so far, that hasn’t happened. ‘Koromo shikibu’ likes to bloom.