Robert E. “Buddy” Lee is the director of plant innovations for Plant Development Services, Inc., but he’s best known as the plant breeder behind the wildly popular Encore Azaleas. He has 30 years of experience in nursery management, breeding, propagation and new plant development, and he travels internationally speaking to horticulture groups.
He’s been collecting plants since the first grade, but he always had a special fascination with one in particular.
“Azaleas just seem to have a magical trait to them, that people were drawn to them when they bloom,” he says.
The tremendous success of his behemoth brand hasn’t given him any illusions about the industry. And he certainly doesn’t take that success for granted.
“People come out of college and tell me they want to do plant breeding,” he says. “I tell them ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ It’s not something that pays off immediately. And it may never pay off.”
Lee believes in the potential of plant breeding, especially with advances in equipment and a market that is more accepting of branded plants than it was when he got started, but notes that prospective breeders may need to take another job to pay the bills. Lee worked night shift at the hospital and ER as a nurse and at his own nursery during the day time.
Many people are passionate about plants, but sustaining that love while still somehow making a decent living can be a difficult proposition.
“When their friends are making three times as much as them but they’re working twice as hard, sometimes the passion fades away,” he says. “If they aren’t passionate about it, or they don’t want to sacrifice, they’ll probably drift away from it anyway, because it’s hard.”
Savannah Springs Nursery, the wholesale production nursery Buddy started in the early 1980s, did well enough. But growers all over were losing money on his favorite crop, the azalea, because production of the shrub was at an all-time high. Azaleas were selling for less than it cost to produce them. Buddy and his wife, Dixie, decided to convert Savannah Springs from a production nursery to a plant breeding nursery.
Buddy continued plant breeding, evaluation and selection work at the renamed Transcend Nursery in Louisiana.
He kept collecting unique and different plant species and cultivars, growing off populations of open and cross-pollinated seedlings and evaluating these seedlings for desirable landscape traits and environmental hardiness. Over the years and through the evaluation of many thousands of seedlings, his work has resulted in 54 plant patents, many foreign plant breeders rights, and numerous U.S. plant trademarks. These new plant introductions include 31 Encore Azaleas as well as cultivars from several other genera that are featured in the Southern Living Plant Collection and the Sunset Western Plant Collection.
Once he was able to focus on his hobby of growing and propagating azalea, his main goal was to create a cultivar that would cut through the overstocked, overproduced basic azalea. At that time, growers and retailers were scaling back on azalea, not adding more to their production plans. Buddy needed something special to set his azalea apart. He envisioned a plant that would bloom in multiple seasons, giving consumers a first act, a second act and even an encore performance.