Meet the American Azalea

While growing up in Tallahassee, I began to recognize the arrival of spring by the show of white, pink, and fuchsia blooms of azalea shrubs. The house I grew up in had large, mature azalea hedges with a variety of different blooms. Every spring, my mom would bring in vases full of them and my dad loved to point out the showy shrubs as we drove through town.

I guess I assumed these plants were native, but most likely I never gave it a thought. I didn’t think to differentiate a native plant from a non-native one. The azaleas we are so familiar with are actually transplants from Asia, favored by the horticultural industry for their fast, vigorous, and dense growth of evergreen leaves and large blooms. Curiously, I have found the lack of these more obvious qualities to be what leads our native azaleas their unique beauty.

I was introduced to native azaleas while working my first spring at Native Nurseries, when, to my amazement, the graceful bare branches exploded with clouds of deliciously fragrant blooms in a variety of colors.

 Piedmont azalea in white with pink blush form.  (Photo: Lilly Anderson-Messec)

Piedmont azalea in white with pink blush form. (Photo: Lilly Anderson-Messec)

The two earliest species to bloom are also our two most common; the Florida flame azalea, Rhododendron austrinum, and the Piedmont azalea, Rhododendron canescens. Because native azaleas are genetically variable, when grown from seed the individual plants within the same species can differ in the shape, size, and colors of bloom. The Piedmonts usually begin blooming first, varying in shades from lightly blushed white to deep pink. The Florida flames follow shortly after in sunny yellows, deep golds, tangerines, and apricot shades.

Unlike their Asian cousins, which stay leafy and green year round, most of our native azaleas are deciduous. This quality makes for a much more impressive show when the leafless branches erupt in masses of color unhindered by distracting foliage. It is a truly breathtaking sight!

Although they are not an ideal choice for the types of hedges Asian azaleas are often used for, our native azaleas are wonderful additions to the landscape nonetheless. They can be used to create a natural privacy screen when mixed with native evergreen shrubs and small trees. I often find them growing in similar situations in the wild, and I find this natural look of mixed deciduous and evergreen native shrubs much more attractive than a formal, screen-like hedge of one non-native evergreen. Those types of plantings are about as appealing as a fence, and our wildlife would agree.

Native mixed plantings allow you to appreciate the progression of the seasons as you watch the individual plants flower and change. Most importantly, our native birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife depend on these plants to provide the food and shelter they desperately need as we continue to replace their natural habitat with barren lawns and non-native plants. Our native plants and wildlife have adapted to rely on each other to meet their specific needs, which non-native plants cannot provide.

Native azaleas are a prime example of this symbiotic relationship. The two species I have mentioned bloom early in spring, when few flowers are available. The fragrant, tubular blooms are perfectly timed to welcome home our hungry hummingbirds returning from their winter migration. In exchange for the nectar rich meal these flowers provide, the hummingbird pollinates the blooms, allowing the plant to produce seed.

These relationships are what make native plants like our wild azaleas not just special, but necessary. If we want to continue to enjoy wildlife like hummingbirds, then we must begin to see our yards as essential pieces of wildlife habitat. Find a spot in your yard for a native azalea or two, and aim to add more native plants every year.