Gardens serve as islands of beauty for the soul, natural pharmacies for humans and other animals, havens for local and rare plants, and teachers of children and adults alike. They help give us a sense of time and passing of seasons. Mobile Botanical Gardens is right in the Mobile area backyard to provide these resources to the community.
The new Aromi Azalea Garden gives Mobile a place to conserve and display the life’s work of the late Dr. Eugene Aromi, a Mobilian who worked on breeding evergreen and deciduous azaleas for more than 40 years.
Of the 108 cultivars of deciduous azaleas that have been names, 25 have already been lost to the world of horticulture. By providing a dedicated garden, we are able to preserve his azalea heritage for the future.
Maarten van der Geissen , of van der Geissen Nursery in Semmes, AL, inherited many of Dr. Aromi’s plants when he passed away, and has been looking after them for more than 10 years. He has generously donated specimen plants for the new garden, so they can be shared with Mobile and the world in perpuity. Along with Tom Johnson, Director of Magnolia Gardens & Plantation, Maarten spearheaded a campaign that, through private means, has provided the financial resources to create the new garden area.
First, I’d like to than the 200 Facebook friends who contributed to this Garden – don’t worry, I’m not going to call their names. Their contributions were the catalyst that got this Garden off the ground. It’s one thing if I tell the Board of Directors that I want to build a Garden, it’s another thing completely when 200 people show up at the door waving hundred dollar bills.
This story really starts with a Facebook conversation I had with Tom Johnson, the Director of Magnolia Plantation in Charleston. I was talking about (whining about) how to fund this installation. Tom comes back with “You know, we really only need two hundred people to give us $100 dollars. I’ll kick in $100.” John Davies of Panhandle Growers chimed in with $100. Bill Ray in Florida, and Dr. Ken Tilt from Auburn pitched in their $100. They had me backed up to the wall, so I pitched in $100. From there it snowballed. We had donors from Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and even the Netherlands and Spain sending in their money, telling Mobile Botanical Gardens to build this Garden. Through the whole process Tom was a relentless cheerleader. He posted photos of Aromi’s plants daily. He exhorted, cajoled, pushed and prodded. Mobile Botanical Gardens owes him a deep debt of gratitude.
I also have to thank the members of our gardening community – good, decent folks who just wanted to make Mobile a better place. I won’t name them here. They know who they are, and they have my undying gratitude. With their help we doubled the Facebook donations, and raised $40,000 in private money.
I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Dr. Aromi. I was honored to have known and worked with him and his wife Jane in the last few years of his life. His 40 years of dedication to hybridizing resulted in 1045 crosses and over 100,000 seedlings that he brought to flower. His work I believe is the largest hybridization project in the United States. Yet, he named only one percent of what he created. Each of those hybrids is a treasure.
Certainly, I have to thank Mobile Botanical Gardens for taking on this project when their plate was already full to overflowing with needs, crises, and burdens. Their installation of this Garden allows Aromi to take his rightful place in the pantheon of great Mobile horticulturalists, creative men like Tom Dodd Jr, and Kosaku Sawada whose work is known throughout the world. The author J.R.R. Tolkien called such men “Sub-Creator, the refracted light, through whom is splintered from a single white, to many hues, endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.”
Mobile Botanical Gardens is ground zero for horticulture in Mobile. We have a gift here that our neighboring cities can only dream of. They clothe their neighborhoods in the offerings from the dime stores of Bentonville Arkansas and the hardware suppliers of Huntersville North Carolina, because that’s what they have. But we have a Garden.
Here’s how it works. In a few moments Gina Gregory, for example, is going to walk through our new Garden. It’s a safe bet that she’s not going to be thinking about the history of Mobile horticulture, or hybridizing, or even horticulture. She is going to be thinking “Wow that would look great in my yard. Where can I get that?” Our marketplace carries a lot of the plants that we have in the Gardens. So she plants her new azalea, and when it blooms? The neighbors are going to say “Wow that would look great in my yard”. Through the Gardens we create a local market for plants from our greatest horticultural minds, rather than what we are fed by the chain stores. The result? A more beautiful and unique city – a richer city. And in the larger view this spreads to our neighboring cities as well. Visitors come home and say “I saw this in Mobile. That’s such a lovely place.”
I also want us to think about Mobile Botanical Gardens as a refuge. Let’s say you want to collect all of Sawada’s camellias. You do your homework, buy the camellias, plant them in your garden. What happens when you pass away? The greatest collection of camellias in the last generation was at the corner of Broad and Government, now a Greer’s Grocery. Down the road at Catherine and Government Blacklawn Gardens is now an Office Depot. Rubel’s magnificent Longview Gardens with its roaring lions and giant Buddah is now Mobile waterworks. The lions sit silently in a museum. Even the garden of Dr. Aromi, where all these wonderful hybrids were created, is now a lawn.
Mobile Botanical Garden allows us to hand down what we value to our children, and to their children. It is an enduring home. It is our enduring home.
Today we celebrate the completion of a new room in that home. We can meet our friends here. We can marry off our children here. In these times of turmoil, we can find some peace here. But our home is not complete. We still have a long way to go to create a Garden worthy of the name Mobile. See, I maintain that Mobile is a reflection of this Garden, a refracted light. As we love this place, so we show our love for our families, for our neighborhoods, and for our City.
By being here today, you are showing your love for this place. I thank you. I thank you for coming here to see, for coming here to learn, for coming here to share, for coming here to grow.