Many gardeners consider native azaleas the most beautiful of our indigenous flowering shrubs, and there is good reason for this. They offer handsome form, colorful blooms, fragrance and ease of cultivation.
Of the many native azaleas that are indigenous to the United States, most by far are from the eastern part of the country, and the Southeast boasts the largest number of species. Numerous selections and cultivars further enhance the gardener’s options.
All the North American species known as native azaleas are deciduous, though they are classified in the genus Rhododendron, which also includes the evergreen azaleas and evergreen rhododendrons. Native azaleas are typically found in woodland habitats, but they adapt beautifully to the home landscape.
Among the different species, there is a great deal of variety in growth habit, bloom time, and bloom color. Many of the species crossbreed in the wild, creating natural hybrids with extensive variation. In addition, hybridizers have created numerous named cultivars to offer the gardening public.
The trumpet-shaped flowers, which are borne at the tips of the branches, range in color from pure white to rosy-pink to yellow to orange-red. These blooms are accented by long, graceful, curving stamens. The flowers are a magnet for butterflies and hummingbirds, making the native azalea an excellent addition to the wildlife habitat garden.
Given the range of bloom times, the gardener is afforded an almost continuous sequence of bloom from late March to September, and even beyond. The early bloomers will often put on their show before the leaves have unfurled, with the flowers lighting up the edge of a wooded area in early spring.
Many native azaleas are highly fragrant, with aromas ranging from sugary sweet to refreshingly spicy. These species provide the gardener with yet another dimension of delight when placed near a porch or garden bench where their scent can be fully appreciated.
Some species grow only a few feet tall, while others may reach 15 to 20 feet in height. These varied growth habits afford numerous possibilities for use. Keep in mind that they will need some sunlight to produce an abundance of flowers. Yet it is best to keep them from the intense heat of the afternoon, so morning sun is best. Often a northern or eastern exposure in the garden will provide excellent conditions.
Native azaleas need gently acidic soil (with a pH around 6) that is well drained and has plenty of organic content. Newly planted specimens should be given ample water the first few seasons until they are thoroughly established. Mulching will help conserve moisture and will protect the shallow roots from the extremes of heat and cold. Generally, native azaleas require little maintenance once established. Apply a light application of a balanced, acid-forming fertilizer, with a formula such as 14-7-7 or 12-6-6, after the plants have bloomed.
Many specimens naturally develop handsome sculptural forms. Pruning is only necessary if the gardener wants to establish a dense shrubby form or a tree-like shape. Keep in mind that any pruning should be conducted shortly after blooming has ceased; otherwise, the flower buds for the next bloom season may be lost.
Pests such as lace bugs, which can trouble non-native evergreen azaleas, are less problematic with native deciduous azaleas. If there is some minor damage, the affected leaves will be shed in the fall, and the plant will renew itself the following spring. Even deer are not often a problem, though they may occasionally browse tender young shoots on small plants. Given the popularity, beauty, and versatility of native azaleas, they are becoming easier to find in the nursery trade, especially at establishments that specialize in native shrubs. There are also several nurseries in Georgia whose specialty is the propagation and sale of native azaleas. A quick internet search will reward you with excellent sources, and you will be sure to find the perfect specimen for your garden.