AIKEN - Azaleas adorn the lush landscape around the 16th green at Augusta National Golf Club like jewels in crown.
But for those who don't have tickets to the 2004 Masters Tournament, there are places in the heart of Aiken that show off the majestic hues of the colorful ornamentals.
The azaleas always seem to bloom as if on cue, just in time for Augusta's golfing rites of spring. Despite rumors of ice being put on the roots to keep the buds from blossoming too soon, a former assistant golf course superintendent at Augusta National said no one but Mother Nature controls when the azaleas bloom.
"We never put ice on the roots while I was there," said Wesley Elijah, who worked at Augusta National from 1991 to 2003. "It's just a timing thing and Mother Nature is very kind."
Aiken has an abundance of azaleas that add vibrant splashes of color to Richland and South Boundary avenues. From the burning red-orange of native azaleas that grow in the Appalachian Mountains to the fluorescent hues of pinkish-magenta Pinxter Bloom azaleas, Aiken horticulturist Tom Rapp said, it is a good year for the flower.
"We got a lot of rain last year when they were setting in their blooms," Mr. Rapp said. "The cooler temperatures this spring have helped and they aren't even fully out yet."
In addition to public gardens such as Hopeland Gardens in Aiken and the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame's Botanical Gardens in Augusta, some private gardens feature the exotic flower.
Stephen Mueller and his mother, Eva Mueller, of Aiken, have rediscovered the beauty of the gardens that surround the Rose Hill Estate. After years of restoring the house and grounds piece by piece, the family now invite visitors to their bed-and-breakfast inn to enjoy the gardens.
The first gardens at Rose Hill were planted by Claudia Phelps, a horticulturist who designed the gardens in the early to mid-1900s. Mr. Mueller said many of the plants, including the azaleas that tower over his head, were ordered from overseas.
"The plants were paraded through Aiken as people celebrated the arrival of these plants that were so exotic," Mr. Mueller said. "Now we take it for granted that we can buy these plants at nurseries and stores."
Hank Bruno takes care of the world's largest azalea garden at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga. The first azaleas were planted there in the 1970s, and there are now more than 5,000 azalea plants within 40 acres of the gardens.
"We had lots of rain last year and a relatively even winter," said Mr. Bruno, the gardens' trail manager.
An afternoon drive: Take a look at the azaleas on Richland Avenue and on South Boundary Avenue.
A walk in the park: Hopeland Gardens, on Whiskey Road in Aiken , (803) 642-7630; Georgia Golf Hall of Fame's Botanical Gardens , 1 12th Street, Augusta, (706) 722-5080
Guided garden tour: By appointment, Rose Hill Estate, 221 Greenville St. N.W. , Aiken , (803) 648-1181
Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395
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