Georgia Gardener Newsletter Design Tip: February 5, 2009

Native Azaleas

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Plumleaf Azalea in late July

My mother is a fifth generation Georgia native and a dedicated gardener who for years when we lived in California told me about a shrub that grew in the woods, which she called the honeysuckle shrub. Years later on our first spring trip to Callaway Gardens, she pointed out to me the honeysuckle shrub from her childhood; the native azaleas.

There are about 15 species of native azaleas on the east coast of the United States. This doesnít include the many cultivars and hybrids that plant breeders are currently producing. Consequently, the taxonomy of this group has gotten quite messy with changing names and new discoveries. Adding to this confusion is the fact that all azaleas (native and exotic) are closely related to evergreen rhododendrons and therefore are included as members of the genus Rhododendron.

The two most obvious traits that separate our native azaleas from the Asian species are that the natives are deciduous (lose their leaves in the fall) and much larger, upwards of 15 feet tall sometimes resembling small, multi-trunked trees. Native azaleas of various types are found in every county in Georgia. In north Georgia, Piedmont azaleas are a common sight in the woods and are easily seen along the edges, especially when in full bloom.

With the exception of the repeat blooming evergreen hybrids from Asia, most people regard azaleas as a spring blooming shrub. This is not the case with the natives. Depending upon the species, you can have native azaleas blooming from early April into August. Their colors range from nearly crisp white to pink, red, yellow and orange. Some are so fragrant that their aroma can be detected almost 50 feet away!

Growing Requirements

The growing requirements for native azaleas are similar to those of their evergreen cousins: deep rich organic soil that is loose, moist but well-drained and somewhat acidic. Native azaleas seem more tolerant of direct sunlight and will not bloom well unless they receive several hours of sun, preferably in the morning. Always, wanting to test the limits of plants, I have subjected a number of native azaleas to full sun. They lasted a year or two but with the drought, they eventually died.

Most native azaleas require more room than evergreen varieties. Depending upon the species and the growing environment, their mature size can reach 15 or so feet tall and 6-10 feet wide. Their growth habit actually reminds me somewhat of a crape myrtle Ė an open upright shrub. They are usually free of pests and diseases and quite easy to grow.

Native azaleas make fine additions to a shrub border, at the edge of a shade garden or even in an open woodland with bright light throughout the day. They require little care. Place them where they will need little if any pruning. If necessary, prune immediately after flowering as the next seasonís buds are set soon after blooming. I fertilize mine once a year right after blooming with a half-inch layer of cottonseed meal.

Early Season Bloomers

Probably the easiest and most abundantly available native azaleas bloom in early April. These include the Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) and the Florida azalea (R. austrinum) and hybrids thereof. The Piedmont azalea (the most common wild azalea in north Georgia) comes in colors, which range from white to dark pink. Around Atlanta, peak bloom time appears to be the second week of April (right around the time of the dogwoods). The Florida azalea blooms a bit earlier with flowers that range from yellow to orange. Both produce ďtrussesĒ of flowers that are quite showy just before or as the leaves are emerging. They are also very fragrant with an aroma that is very similar to that of honeysuckle.

Florida Azalea (R. austrinum) Piedmont Azalea (R. canescens)

Mid Season Bloomers

Continuing from April and into May and June come the mid season bloomers such as the Oconee azalea (R. flammeum) with its orange to red flowers and Pinxter azalea (R. nudiflorum) which ranges from white to pink. Both have some resemblance to the early bloomers of the same color, but only the Pinxter azalea has fragrance. Alabama azalea (R. alabamense) blooms white with a yellow center and often with a citrus aroma.

Late Season Bloomers

Even with the heat and humidity of summer, the native azaleas donít quit. The Sweet azalea (R. arborescens) has white flowers with just a hint of pink, which are strongly fragrant. Plant this one close by for enjoyment. Finishing out the season is the latest bloomer, the Plumleaf azalea (R. prunifolium) pictured above with its orange to red flowers. Pruning of this azalea is problematic, because the next seasonís buds have already formed by the time the current seasonís flowers have opened.

I recommend that every gardener try at least one native azalea in his or her garden. To make your selection easier, Iíve created a convenient table that lists them with their bloom season, color and whether or not they are fragrant.

Common Name Botanical Name(s) Bloom Season Color Fragrance
Piedmont R. canescens Early White to Pink Strong
Florida R. austrinum Early Yellow to Orange Strong
Pinkshell R. vaseyi Early Pink None
Canada R. canadense Mid Pink to Purple None
Oconee R. flammeum
syn. R. speciosum
Mid Red to Orange None
Pinxter R. periclymenoides
syn. R. nudiflorum
Mid White to Pink slight
Alabama R. alabamense Mid White Yes
Coastal R. atlanticum Mid White Yes
Roseshell R. prinophyllum
syn. R. roseum
Mid Pink Strong
Eastman R. eastmanii Mid White Yes
Flame R. calendulaceum Mid to Late Yellow to Red None
Swamp R. viscosum Mid to Late White to Pink Yes
Sweet R. arborescens Mid to Late White to Pink Strong
Cumberland R. cumberlandense
syn. R. bakeri
Late Red to Orange None
Plumleaf R. prunifolium Very Late Red to Orange None

Additional Information:

East Coast Native Azaleas (web site) by Donald Hyatt
The Azalea Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society
Azalea Society of America
TOWE, L.C., 2004. American Azaleas; Portland: Timber Press

Source for Native Azaleas

Lazy K Nursery, Pine Mountain, Georgia


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