Native Azalea or Wild Honeysuckle?

No matter what you call it, it’s a great plant for your garden.

Piedmont Azalea
Piedmont Azalea. Photo: Steve Bender

Welcome to Grumpy's garden on this fine spring day! See that bush over there with light pink blossoms and long, protruding stamens? Notice the delicate perfume lingering in the air? Some folks call it "wild honeysuckle" because the blooms resemble those of Japanese honeysuckle, the ones we picked as kids to extract a drop of honeyed nectar for our tongues. But it isn't honeysuckle and that's a very good thing.

You see, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is an invasive vine that spreads by seed and traveling roots, choking pristine woodlands with impenetrable tangles of twining stems. It's among the most evil weeds ever introduced the into U.S.

No such fate awaits those who plant the well-mannered Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) shown above. Native to woodlands from North Carolina to north Florida and over to Arkansas and east Texas, it forms an upright, multi-stemmed, airy shrub that can grow 10 feet tall and wide over time. As with all species of native azalea, it's deciduous, unlike the ubiquitous evergreen azaleas that hail from Japan and Korea. Flowers range in color from pink to rose or white and exude a spicy, sweet scent. It's adapted to USDA Zones 5 to 9.

Piedmont azalea thrives in my Alabama garden where it enjoys dappled sun/shade and moist, well-drained, acid soil containing lots of organic matter from decaying tree leaves. A naturalistic setting suits it best, so I combined it with fellow native woodland plants, including ferns, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells, dogwood, serviceberry, strawberry bush, red buckeye, and huckleberry.

pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron Periclymenoides)
Pinxterbloom azalea. Getty Images

A similar looking "wild honeysuckle," pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), has a more northerly native range stretching from Massachusetts to Tennessee and north Georgia. My father planted one in our backyard when I was growing up in Maryland and it was always a treat when it flowered. Ours bloomed pink, but white and lavender forms occur. It's smaller than Piedmont azalea, slowly growing to maybe five feet tall, and its blossoms offer a delicate sweet scent. You can grow it in USDA Zones 4 to 8.

Other highly fragrant "wild honeysuckles" include Alabama azalea (Rhododendron alabamense), sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens), and swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum).

Where can you get one? I don't recommend digging a native azalea from the wild. You'll probably end up killing it and, besides, it isn't yours. Independent garden centers that carry a wide variety of native plants are your best bet. Plant sales at botanical gardens are another useful source. That's where mine came from. You can also find them for sale online at places like Nearly Native Nursery in Fayetteville, Georgia. They ship plants from October 1 to April 30, so the time to act is now.

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