People love azaleas almost as much as they love their kids. In fact, a lot of them love them more. Trouble is, most azaleas pack all of their punch into a week or two in spring.Wouldn't it be great if you could grow an azalea that bloomed in summer? You can.
No, I'm not talking about the much-hyped Encore azaleas, which people either love or hate for a variety of reasons. (I'll leave that controversy for another column.) I'm talking about the beauty shown above -- plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium). It's blooming in my garden as I write this.
Native to Georgia and Alabama, plumleaf azalea is the signature plant of Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia. Callaway is the first place I ever saw it blooming. The second was all around our Southern Living headquarters building in Birmingham. Today, I guarantee you that the Grump is the only person in his neighborhood to have one growing at his house. What a gift to humanity I am!
Like all azaleas native to North America, plumleaf azalea is deciduous. It's a steady, but not fast grower, eventually reaching 10 feet tall after many years. It's not the only native that blooms in summer -- others include sweet azalea (R. serrulatum) and swamp azalea (R. viscosum) -- but it's by far the showiest. Large, orange-red to bright-red flowers open in July and August.
Often when trees and shrubs bloom after the foliage emerges, the flowers are somewhat hidden. That's not the case here. The blossoms sit conveniently atop the foliage. As soon as they fade, pointed flower buds for next summer's blooms begin to form at the ends of twigs. If you don't see any buds by the time the leaves drop in fall, you won't get any flowers in summer.
What Plumleaf Azalea Needs
1. Moist, acid, well-drained soil containing lots of organic matter
2. Dappled sun/shade (not deep shade or you won't get any blooms)
3. Winter temps above -15 degrees F (that's practically everywhere that matters)
Better garden centers carry plumleaf and other native azaleas, but if you can't find them locally, here are some good mail-order sources.