I have been exploring the natural environs of the Florida Panhandle for many years, often returning to favorite spots regularly. Although I assumed I might become bored with the same spots, or the Panhandle in general, every year I am delighted to discover new flora and fauna. Last spring was just such an experience.
I was revisiting a favorite location in Chattahoochee that is teeming with rare and unusual plant species. This is a site I have visited over the years in every season and have always been surprised to find something new that I’ve never noticed before.
On this morning, I decided to wander deeper into the woods along a small, clear stream. I saw many familiar early spring wildflowers including trillium, columbine, and even oxeye sunflower in bloom. These plants signified a healthy habitat that had not been overly disturbed by people.
As I followed the stream, I noticed a blaze of bright orange up ahead. With elation, I realized I had come upon our native Florida flame azalea, Rhododendron austrinum, blooming in the wild! This was a first for me and it’s hard to describe the feeling of excitement and joy that filled me like a warm, electric buzz throughout my body. Goosebumps!
I often see our more common native Piedmont azalea, Rhododendron canescens, with its blush-pink flowers blooming in the wild, but the Florida flame is a state-listed endangered species and, while I’ve seen many plants in cultivation, it’s a rare find in the wild.
As I ventured further into the woods, I discovered more and more Florida flame azalea plants. One of the most alluring aspects of our native wildflowers, trees, and shrubs is the genetic variation they often exhibit. Unlike plant varieties that have been cultivated for uniformity, native species often exhibit many visible differences between individual plants within the same species.
Just like humans, differences in size, shape, and color are noticeable between individuals. These visible differences are seen even if all the plants originated from the same seedpod. They may differ in traits that are not visible as well, like susceptibility to pests and disease or their tolerance of varying conditions, such as temperature and humidity. This genetic variability makes the entire species more adaptable to change in their environment.
Florida flame azaleas are a superb example of visible genetic variation. With each new individual I encountered along my path that spring day, I noticed differences in their blooms. One plant had tight clusters of clear tangerine blooms, the next was a solid yellow-gold, while another exhibited a bright tangerine flower face, yet the tubular throat of the flower was a gradient from dark orange to deep purple red. I wandered for hours, pushed by the anticipation of what the next blooms would have to offer.
You can experience these glorious fragrant shrubs in your yard too. Many native plant nurseries carry seed-grown native Florida flame azaleas. With such varying color differences between individual plants, many homeowners prefer to shop in spring so they can choose the exact color they want. Others are content to be surprised the following spring.
Like many of our native endangered plant species, Florida flame azalea is low-maintenance if you provide the right conditions. It blooms best when planted in a sunny spot that provides some shade during the day.
They prefer well-draining soil, rich with organic matter, that doesn’t dry out often. Plant them properly, with the first main root at or just above soil level and keep them well-watered throughout the first year. In return, they will reward you each spring with their fragrant, flaming blooms.
The memorable experience of discovering this rare azalea in bloom reinforced my love for this incredibly biodiverse area we call home – the Florida Panhandle. I hope that sharing my joy and excitement for this remarkable region will inspire you to explore and appreciate it as well.
I hope you consider planting more native species in your own yard and supporting conservation of this unique region so that future generations can experience the same delight and awe.