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Our native azaleas demand attention
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
If I had a singing voice, I might do a few bars of the Hallelujah Chorus. The fourth Mississippi Garden and Patio Show was a huge success, but even better was the fact that the native azaleas had to be among the hottest plants getting carried out of the buildings.
I know one garden center sold tons of Boston ferns in four hours and another sold huge quantities of bleeding heart clerodendrums, but to see gardeners walking out with so many native azaleas made this horticulturist proud.
I recently gave a program in Point Clear, Ala., and the plant everybody was taking pictures of was the large honeysuckle azalea. On the way home on Highway 98, my son kept pointing out those blooming at the edge of the forest.
Things are changing around here, and native azaleas are catching on. The domino effect is starting. As gardeners ask for these plants, more and more will show up, then there will be hybrids made that will offer us even hotter colors. Growers are starting to mass produce these and achieve uniformity in the product.
When I mention native azaleas, which are Rhododendron species, I'll admit most consumers still do not know about them, but that will change soon.
No longer is "deciduous" a dirty word. One radio station called them "desidious" azaleas as if that word was related to "insidious." This spring has been great because gardeners once again are buying flowering quince, forsythia, barberries and now azaleas that are all deciduous.
If you would you like an azalea with bright, iridescent orange flowers with long, delicate stamens that remind you of a tropical flower, then you may be candidate for a native azalea. If you would love fragrant pink flowers that look so much like a honeysuckle you have to examine the plant to convince yourself that it is not a woody honeysuckle, then you need a native azalea.
My favorites are some of the varieties of Rhododendron austrinum, which are native from Mississippi to Florida. Despite this large geographic area, they are called Florida flame azalea.
There have been selections of the species made, such as Adam's Orange, that is a deep orange; Austrinum Gold, which is a brilliant, goldish-orange; and Harrison's Red, which is a rosy-red. There are many more selections out there, and some have great fragrances.
The other prominent native azalea is the Rhododendron canescens, which is called the Piedmont azalea or around here the honeysuckle azalea. This one mostly comes in shades of pink-rose and white with an awesome fragrance.
Other species that are not native to Mississippi but are from southeastern states perform well, such as the Rhododendron alanticum or coast azalea. The Rhododendron prunifolium, or plum-leaf azalea, blooms in midsummer and does well in all but the coastal counties. You may have seen it prominently featured at Callaway Garden in Pine Mountain, Ga.
One that is much overlooked but will probably gain in popularity is the Rhododendron flammeum or Oconee azalea. This azalea is among the best for heat and drought tolerance and is available in red, yellow and orange.
How you would use native azaleas may be the real question to ask yourself. Consider a color wheel when creating bold plantings of native azaleas with favorite Southern Indica azaleas and dogwoods. Bright yellow-gold and purple works for lantanas and verbenas, and it will work with azaleas, too!
Enjoy shopping for azaleas of all kinds this spring, and keep your eyes peeled for those native species. They are a good buy.