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Native azaleas

add color, beauty to the garden

 

By Betty Montgomery
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We all are familiar with the evergreen azaleas that came to us from Asia. However, did you know there is an azalea that is native to North America? These wild azaleas sport an exotic bloom, are deliciously fragrant and come in a dazzling range of colors that are quite showy.

 

The majority of native azaleas are found growing from Maine to Florida, and many grow along the Appalachian mountain range. I believe this group of plants is underused in the landscape, possibly because they are not sold in the larger stores like the evergreen azaleas or because they do not have leaves all year.

 

People can get a little confused with this azalea because it has so many names; native, deciduous, wild, honeysuckle, bush honeysuckles or wild honeysuckle. The latter names were probably given because the native azaleas can have a slight similarity to the wild honeysuckle vine that is also sweetly scented.

 

Native azaleas are lauded for their hardiness and their beauty. This exotic-looking flower with the lovely fragrance makes this a flower that I would recommend for any garden. The bushes are quite distinct, having a terminal bud at the end of each branch that looks different from other plants. I hope I always have several planted in my garden because they are just an outstanding plant.

 

Our American native azaleas are known to be more cold hardy than the evergreen ones from Asia. Some are quite heat tolerant, too. Their bloom times range from April to August, depending on the variety, of course. They will lose their leaves in the winter since they are a deciduous plant.

 

Native azaleas come in a wide range of colors: white, brilliant yellow, bright orange and vivid reds and colors in-between. Plant size also varies, ranging from about 3 feet to 20 feet up. Their range in height makes them versatile in the landscape. They can be used behind some of the shorter evergreen azaleas as a backdrop or they look lovely in front of a hedge of taller evergreen shrubs or trees. Native azaleas are considered quite hardy, but you will need to make sure and think of their native habitat when you locate them in your garden. They tend to prefer part sun and moist, humusrich, well-drained soil.

 

A wonderful advantage of our native azalea is that they extend the flowering season. My first ones to bloom come along with some of my evergreen azaleas in the first weeks of April. The early bloomers are the Pinkshell azalea (R. vaseyi) and what some call the Mayflower azalea (R. austrinum). Both of these flower before the leaves come out, making the flowers stand out even more.

 

The Flame azalea (R. calendulaceum) that is noted to grow in the Smoky Mountains sport flowers that range in colors from white to peach to orange and yellow and some are red. The bloom time for some of these is April where I live, but they do not bloom until June or July in the mountaintops where they grow wild. The bushes are quite distinct, as the branches in flower look like candle flames. I have one other that blooms in late summer that is red, R. prunifolium, also called Plumleaf Azalea.

 

When two different plants have been crossed, the new plant is called a hybrid. Many people try to cross different azaleas to develop different traits. Some of the crosses have been developed in England and Belgium and some of these are fragrant: “Exbury, “Knap Hill” and “Ghent.” Other crosses have been made that are more heat tolerant. Dodd and Dodd Nursery in Mobile, Alabama, has worked to develop crosses that have outstanding colorful blooms that also can withstand hot and humid summers. Two that I love in my garden are “Stonewall Jackson” and “Admiral Semmes.”

 

George Beasley at Transplant Nursery also has made some wonderful crosses. One of my very favorite native azalea stories and plants is one called “My Mary.” This controlled cross is a lovely yellow. George says: “It has beauty, charm, good tough leaves, good plant form, hardiness and a strong pleasing fragrance. Only one name seemed adequate for this fine plant. ‘My Mary’ was the choice. Normally a husband should be able to expect some small credit for naming an azalea for his wife, but as always, I blew it. In the plant description, I stated that ‘the plant grows as broad as tall!’

 

Well, George, she might not have liked the description, but it is a favorite of many and a lovely plant.

 

Betty Montgomery can be reached
at bmontgomery40@gmail.com.