We were saddened to learn last Thursday that Dr. Oneal Smitherman passed away at UAB hospital in Birmingham. Dr. Smitherman “Smitty” served on the Fisheries faculty from 1967 until his retirement in 1994. During his time with Auburn he conducted research in the areas of fish breeding, aquaculture production and fish genetics and taught classes in the areas of fish breeding and aquaculture production systems. From 1972 – 1973, he was Leader of an USAID/Auburn University project in Panama. In the 1980s he was instrumental in securing funds to construct the Genetics Unit at the E. W. Shell Fisheries Station. From 1990 – 1991, he served as Director of the Office of Aquaculture with USDA and Chairman, Federal Interagency Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture in Washington, DC. David Rouse
Lake Martin’s Oneal Smitherman is dedicating his retirement to the azaleas of Alabama
By Candis Hacker Birchfield, Lake Martin Magazine – 03/2011
The love affair began one Easter Sunday morning in the 1950s. A young boy then, Lake Martin resident R. Oneal Smitherman returned home from a walk through the woods in Bibb County holding a bouquet of honeysuckle-like flowers with large pink blossoms and gave them to his mother. Smitherman called the flowers by their common name, “bush honeysuckle,” and each Easter thereafter he presented his mother with a similar bouquet.
As he grew older, his love for bush honeysuckle strengthened as the appearance of the blossoms each spring would send him reeling back in time to sweet memories of his mother. Curious by nature, Smitherman eventually investigated the flowers he had come to love. What he learned led to a crusade born of passion for the flowering plant.
Smitherman discovered that the name bush honeysuckle is commonly used to describe more than a dozen species of the deciduous, native rhododendron, or native azalea.
His fascination with the flowers grew, and for the last 40 years he has documented, identified, collected, grown and even hybridized the plants. Two colleagues joined him in his work, R.D. Rouse and Tom E. Corley, and the results of their efforts can be witnessed each spring around the state in both private and public gardens, most notably on the Auburn University campus.
From Samford Hall to the President’s Home, Auburn University possesses hundreds of specimens of native azaleas donated by Smitherman. However, the collection in the Donald E. Davis Arboretum is the most spectacular. More than 450 plants have been donated to the Davis Arboretum, making it one of the most complete collections of native azaleas in the country.
“The collection offered to us by Dr. Smitherman has special significance for us since he could also provide information concerning their origin,” said Dee Smith, curator of the Davis Arboretum. “With the constant destruction of native habitat due to development, this collection enables us to become a repository for native
rhododendron and preserves the diversity of the species.”
Although the collection is vast, Lake Martin residents do not have to drive to Auburn to see flowering native azaleas each spring. Many species can be found in the woodlands of Alabama and surrounding states, including two that are known to thrive around the lake.
Rhododendron canescens is the most abundant species on Lake Martin and is distributed throughout the Southeastern states. Boasting pale pink to deep pink flowers, R. canescens blooms in late March and early April, has a sweet fragrance, and thrives in moist, acidic soil. It’s often found along streams or at the edge of the lake, and will grow in shade, partial shade or full sun.
Rhododendron minus also grows in the wild at Lake Martin. Unlike R. canescens, R. minus is a hardy evergreen that blooms in April in shades of pink with light yellow centers.
“The Rhododendron minus is surprisingly tolerant of hot sunny exposure as well as shade,” Smitherman said. “It is mostly found on sites with northern exposure.”
Another native azalea that can be spotted along the banks of Lake Martin by careful observers is the once-prolific sweet azalea, or Rhododendron arborescens.
“Rhododendron arborescens used to be plentiful in Tallapoosa and Elmore Counties, but most of the plants were drowned by the filling of the lake,” Smitherman said. “Known for their sweet smell, it can still be found along a few tributary streams, and can be grown at the lake on higher ground if it is planted right and kept watered.”
The Rhododendron alabamense, or Alabama azalea, is another species that has suffered severe habitat destruction.
“The alabamense is lost faster than other rhododendron because it lives on higher ground where timbering and development occur,” said Smitherman, who is concerned about the habitat destruction of all native rhododendrons. “Even on the lake I get so aggravated when I see developers send a bulldozer onto a property and wipe out all of the beautiful native azaleas, which they see as trash. Then they come back and plant hedges in their place.”
For the last four years, Smitherman, with help from Auburn resident and Davis Arboretum Specialist Patrick Thompson, has visited 26 counties in the state collecting samples of the Alabama azalea in an effort to preserve the species. The unique Alabama azalea blooms in April and has white blossoms accentuated by a yellow blotch on the petals.
“Named the Alabama azalea because it is found almost exclusively in our state, the plant has been wiped out in many places, which is why I am trying to get the most complete genetic preservation I can,” Smitherman said. “I have not located a native population of the Alabama azalea in Elmore or Tallapoosa Counties, but I hope to. If any of the Lake magazine readers find the Alabama azalea, let me know. I will be happy to trade beautiful native azaleas or hybrids for the native Alabama azalea. Contact me by e-mail at email@example.com.”
In addition to his work preserving the native Alabama azalea, Smitherman has launched a campaign to have the Alabama azalea named the state flower of Alabama. He argues that the current state flower, the camellia, is the only state emblem not native to Alabama. In his proposal, Smitherman writes: “We Alabama citizens and legislators must … reduce the Camellia japonica to its true status as an exotic, Asian nursery plant, and elevate a beautiful, fragrant native of Alabama, which is distributed almost exclusively within the boundaries of Alabama, and which was named for our state. … The Alabama azalea is the ‘Star That Fell on Alabama.’… Let us honor this special plant with the position it deserves – state flower of Alabama!”
Although his proposal is undergoing evaluation for legislative action, some doubt that Smitherman will be present to realize his dream of a native azalea representing the state of Alabama. Not because of lack of support, but because he was diagnosed in Feb. 2010 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. The disease is also cruel, in that as the person affected slowly loses the ability to do things like talk and walk, the mind remains sharp and alert. Currently, Smitherman is unable to talk, his communication is limited to writing, e-mails and text messages. He is also unable to walk without the assistance of a walker or wheelchair, or hold his head upright without the assistance of a neck brace. Despite these physical difficulties, Smitherman is still focused on his work with native rhododendrons.
“This boy is on the way down, and I use the preservation project and the state flower project to keep me focused on making a contribution before I go,” Smitherman said.
Although his fate is full of uncertainty, one thing is sure: this April, when the native rhododendrons come into full bloom, Smitherman will have a front-row seat to the show at his Lake Martin home in Holiday Shores. Surrounding his lake house are hundreds of native rhododendrons, each one carefully cared for and planted by Smitherman himself. He will sit in his office, surrounded by photos of his work, gazing out the window down to the lake and the yard full of blooms, and he will know, even if this is the last spring he sees, many will enjoy the fruits of his efforts for generations to come.