Plant Native Azaleas This Year
Evergreen azaleas are so ubiquitous (look it up) in Southern gardens that no one could blame you for thinking they evolved here. Still, you'd be wrong. They hail from Japan and Korea and first appeared in the U.S. around 1800.
Native azaleas were here all along. Unlike their Asian cousins, native species lose their leaves in winter and grow open and upright rather than forming dense mounds. Flowers are spectacular. Long stamens and sweet fragrance earn them the nickname, "wild honeysuckle." They offer the yellow, gold, peach, orange, and flaming red colors rarely seen in evergreen types. Species readily hybridize, making all sorts of color combinations possible.
Where do you obtain native azaleas? From the woods? NO. That is a crime against nature. Besides, wild gathered plants often don't survive. Instead, look for nursery-grown plants at local garden centers or online. Spring and fall are the best times to plant.
I could suggest a slew of species to try, but so as to not overwhelm you with choices, will introduce the following five. All are fragrant and easy to grow, as long as you supply the basics that I will mention later.
Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum).
Native to northern Florida as well as southern parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, this species thrives in the heat. It's a parent of many popular, heat-tolerant hybrids including 'Aromi Sunrise' (above), 'Admiral Semmes,' and 'Stonewall Jackson.' Growing 8 to 10 feet tall, it bears yellow, gold, orange, red, or pink blooms. It's hardy in USDA Zones 6 to 9.
Alabama azalea (Rhododendron alabamense).
Native to Alabama and Georgia, this azalea grows 5 to 6 feet tall and suckers to form colonies. Its highly fragrant, sweet-spicy blossoms are white with yellow blotches. Grow it in USDA Zones 7 to 9.
Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens).
This large, vigorous shrub is native from North Carolina west to East Texas. It suckers to form clumps (but not invasive ones) up to 10 feet tall. Flowers vary from pink to white to rose. It does well in USDA Zones 5 to 9.
Pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides).
In my younger days, I sometimes confused this with piedmont azalea, but notable differences distinguish it. It's native range is far more Northern, extending from North Carolina up to Massachusetts and Ohio. It's smaller and slower growing, reaching about 3 to 4 feet. Finally, its white, pink, or lavender flowers are even more fragrant. Try this one in USDA Zones 4 to 8.
Sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens).
"Arborescens" means tree-like and that's certainly the case here, as plants in the wild may grow 20 feet tall. In your garden, though, expect half of that. Native to the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Alabama, it bears intensely sweet white blossoms with prominent red stamens. It's well-suited to USDA Zones 4 to 7.
Native azaleas aren't hard to grow by any means, but they are a bit less forgiving than their evergreen counterparts. Although some species grow in wet soil, most, including those mentioned here, like good drainage. Give them moist, acid, fertile soil containing lots of organic matter, such as chopped leaves, composted cow manure, and ground bark. Make sure the top of the root ball is a teeny bit higher than the surrounding soil and then cover it with an inch of organic mulch. Nursery-bought plants come with fertilizer added, so don't add any more. Water several times a week during droughts in summer and fall. Plant in part sun or light shade. If the shade is too dark, flowering will be sparse to nonexistent. Pruning is seldom required, but if necessary, do it soon after the shrub finishes blooming.