Be on the lookout for the native varieties of this beautiful landscape jewel.
A Florida flame azalea at Callaway Gardens in Georgia.
Native azaleas, often called wild honeysuckle bushes because of their incredible fragrance, are starting their annual appearance across Alabama. As a group, they are called deciduous azaleas. There are several native species found from the mountains of North Alabama all the way to the Gulf Coast. Native azaleas such as the pink Piedmont Azalea, blooming now in much of its Alabama range, are at least as beautiful as their non-native evergreen cousins and, as mentioned, are much more fragrant. They are greatly underused in the Southern landscape. Some such as the Florida flame azalea have unusual yellow to orange and orange-red flowers. Most are either native to Alabama or will grow well in most areas of our state. The individual florets are trumpet-shaped and usually borne in large terminal clusters. Identification of native azaleas can be difficult because of the similarities among species. Natural hybridization has complicated the matter by producing many intermediate forms with unusual flower colors.
Many Southerners first encountered native deciduous azaleas while walking in the woods. They may have spotted the pink, fragrant, delicate flowers of the Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) or the orange-yellow blooms of the Florida flame azalea (R. austrinum). Maybe it was the white, yellow-blotched and lemon-scented flowers of our namesake Alabama azalea (R.alabamense). Alabama azalea may not have the showiest flower, but may be the most fragrant of all the native azaleas.
A more recently discovered native Alabama azalea is the Red Hills azalea (R. colemanii). It is somewhat like the Alabama azalea, although it blooms a month later, has a wider color range and is found in drier soils.
However, the latest blooming of all the deciduous azaleas is the beautiful Plumleaf azalea (R. prunifolium) that shows its bright-orange to deep-red flowers in late summer all the way through to Labor Day in most years. The flowers attract hummingbirds, but they are not very fragrant.
Although these azaleas are generally found in well-drained but rich, moist soils, you may find one species growing in nearby swamps, hence the name swamp azalea (R. viscosum). To view some beautiful examples of these native jewels, visit www.aces.edu/go/671.
In addition to the aforementioned soil conditions, deciduous azaleas do best with morning sun and afternoon shade to enhance blooming and reduce stress. Add a 3-inch layer of mulch to protect the shallow root system. A light application of slow-release azalea fertilizer just after blooming should be sufficient to keep them growing and blooming. If your soil is not well-drained, consider planting in a raised bed or individual mounds or try the swamp azalea for these sites.
As woody-area landscape specimens, deciduous azaleas are a wonderful addition. They do best when left unpruned and allowed to maintain an open natural habit. Deciduous azaleas are not always available in nurseries but ask for them. This will encourage nurseries to stock a wider selection. Some plants that may be more readily available are named cultivars and native hybrids, developed or selected for some superior quality.
If you can’t find these wonderful plants at a local mom-and-pop nursery, be on the lookout for spring plant sales at your nearest botanical gardens or native plant society, and support them by purchasing plants from them.