Native azaleas tend to be very high on the list of a Southern gardener’s favorite ornamental plants. Different species of native azaleas can be found growing wild all across Alabama. The different species will bloom at different times, with some blooming in spring and others not blooming until later in the year. The native azaleas are deciduous plants, which means they lose their leaves in the fall, but the blooms are spectacular.
Planting Location and Crosses
Planting location can be very important. The plants grow slowly in heavy shade and produce few blooms. A filtered shade location is recommended, but the earlier blooming species can do well in more sun. However, the blooms will not be showy for long when the later blooming species are planted in the full sun.
Often times the pollen from one native azalea will move to the pistol of another azalea. Seeds will form, be dispersed, and a new plant begins to grow. This new plant will be a cross between the parents. Therefore, it is very common to see native azalea crosses in the wild. For example, the Piedmont azalea, or Rhododendron canescens, has pink blooms and the Alabama azalea, or Rhododendron alabamense, has white blooms with a yellow blotch. Since they naturally cross, it is common to see a pink throat in an R. alabamense bloom or a yellow blotch on a petal of a R. canescens.
Planting seeds and rooting cuttings are two common methods for propagating native azaleas. If a gardener takes cuttings, the plant will be an exact copy of the plant the cutting came from. A Rhododendron viscosum is a very pretty native azalea with white flowers that blooms around the first part of June. If a cutting were taken from a Rhododendron viscosum, the growth habit and the bloom of the new plant will be identical to the plant the cutting was propagated from. If seeds from that plant were saved, the seedlings may be a cross between that plant and another native azalea that was blooming at the same time.
Native azaleas are commonly propagated from cuttings, but all the cuttings do not root equally. The Rhododendron austrinum is one of the easier native azaleas to root and is one of the most common ones found at nurseries. The Rhododendron canescens is a little more difficult to root and planting seeds may be the best method for some growers. There is nothing wrong with a cross, but that is what may happen when planting seeds.
The early blooming native azaleas are extremely showy early in the spring before the plants leaf out completely. However, do not forget about the later blooming native azaleas. They may not load up with as many blooms as the earlier blooming species, but they really add to a landscape. For more help or to ask questions about native azaleas, give your local Extension office a call.