Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Parade of Native Azaleas

The early spring native azalea bonanza just blew through my garden and it’s only the first week in April.  Yep, it was an early show this year but it was great and I took my camera out there to enjoy it often.  However, when it comes to native azaleas, the show is not over yet.  With careful planning and selection, one can have native azaleas blooming even into September in north Georgia.

Gregory Bald hybrid

Rhododendron canescens

The first one to bloom for me is the Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens).  Up until this year’s early spring, bloom has always been early April.  The flowers are primarily white with a bit of pink.  The stamens are quite long, and there should be no yellow blotch on the bloom (more on that later). The flowers usually open before the leaves start to expand and continue as the leaves appear.  The fragrance of the flowers – a sweet floral scent – makes this my favorite of all the early bloomers.  The size of this species can be up to 15 feet tall, allowing it to be treated as a small tree in a specimen arrangement.

The next species to bloom often overlaps with the Piedmont azalea.  It is the Oconee azalea which is now considered Rhododendron flammeum but was once considered R. speciosum; the old name is still used by some enthusiasts.  Bloom colors are a range of yellowish-orange to orange to red, often with a yellow blotch on one petal.  The flowers may precede the leaves or occur at the same time. There is no fragrance to the flowers and, in general, it is a smaller shrub ranging up to 8 feet.

Rhododendron flammeum

In places where the two species overlap during bloom time, natural hybrids can occur.  Key indicators would be a pale color in the bloom, a yellow blotch on the petal, and a light fragrance – a little something from each parent!

Rhododendron austrinum

The Florida flame azalea, Rhododendron austrinum, would also have overlapping bloom times with the two above.  While it does grow in Georgia, it is not indigenous to north Georgia.  Color is typically yellow with a reddish tube, and the fragrance is good.  Mature height is about 8 feet.  I took this photo at a friend’s garden in Smyrna.

Next in the bloom cycle could be the Alabama azalea, Rhododendron alabamense. This one has a white colored bloom with a yellow blotch and a spicy, lemony fragrance.  I don’t have this one, but those that have it are very fond of it.  It usually blooms before the leaves and generally is a smaller shrub, up to 6 feet.  It tends to spread by stolons underground.

Rhododendron periclymenoides

Pinxterbloom azalea, Rhododendron periclymenoides, is not as common as others (and the name is really hard to say!), but it would be a good one to continue the progression of blooms.  This is from the same garden in Smyrna.  What a spectacular shade of pink!

The Red Hills azalea, Rhododendron colemanii, is a recently identified species that was for years thought to be R. alabamense.  Colors vary from white to pale pink to pale yellow.  This species is being propagated in Georgia and is usually available at native plant sales around the metro area.  Another new species known as the “May white” azalea, Rhododendron eastmanii, is not as available.  Both of them bloom about the same time.  For an excellent article on these two “new” azaleas, please check this article from the newsletter of the Georgia Native Plant Society.

Rhododendron calendulaceum

The Flame azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum, would make a good selection for the next one in the bloom cycle. It has been found blooming in May in north Georgia.  Flowers are described as the largest of the native azaleas and have a brilliant range from yellow to orange to deep red. One of the larger forms, it ranges up to 12 feet.  Here is a picture I took at Southern Highlands Reserve; it was grown from seed collected on Gregory Bald.

In late May, swamp azalea, Rhododendron viscosum, starts to bloom with fragrant white flowers.  This is another tall species, reaching 15 feet.  The swamp azalea has been used successfully in hybridization programs to create beautiful new cultivars.  I have one of them: ‘Millennium’ which is a deep pink and has a light fragrance from the R. viscosum parent; the color is thought to be from R. prunifolium.  The blue-green color of the leaves is an extra bonus.

Rhododendron viscosum

Smooth azalea, Rhododendron arborescens, is sweetly fragrant with white blooms. Another tall form, it is often found in moist environments such as streamsides.  The stems are noticeably smoother than other azaleas, but another common name – sweet azalea – refers to the excellent fragrance.  I have both the species and one of the cultivars known as ‘Popcorn’.


Plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) is one of my favorites and the last to bloom for me.  Naturally found in southwestern Georgia within a 100-mile radius, this species was one of the inspirations for Callaway Gardens in order to preserve this rare plant and its habitat. It is their signature flower and part of their logo.  It is also remarkably easy to propagate and grow, reaching heights up to 15 feet.  The one next to my front porch has thrived, blooming every year in late June through mid-July and delighting both me and the hummingbirds in the process.  This picture was taken July 16, 2011.

Rhododendron prunifolium

Rhododendron serrulatum (now considered a form of R. viscosum) is considered the latest bloomer of all, blooming in August and even into September in some areas.  Commonly called hammocksweet azalea, the flowers are small, white and fragrant.   

So there you have it – a veritable parade of blooms if you plan it right.  You can have azaleas blooming potentially from late March to early September with the right combination of species and cultivars.  If you'd like to find some of these azaleas, check out the annual plant sale of the Georgia Native Plant Society this coming weekend in Marietta (April 14, 2012).  There will be lots of different ones there.


  1. Do you happen to know if an azalea is deciduous, is it then likely to be a native variety? And do evergreen types tend be Asian varieties? We have some that were planted maybe 30 years ago and of course have no tags or labels, they loose most of their leaves in winter, and now I'm hoping they might be natives.

  2. There are some deciduous azaleas that are not native. This link has some good information about the Ghent, Knapp Hill and Exbury azaleas and how they were bred:

    There are no evergreen azaleas that are native, although there are native evergreen members of the Rhododendron genus - but they tend to be called "rhododendrons", not azaleas.

  3. Guess you're going to be some kind of busy next weekend, huh?

  4. This makes me wonder. Since they put dye in the ponds and spray paint the fairways, do you think that most of the azaleas at Augusta National are native varieties?

  5. This is much needed information. With so many natives and non-natives, it is very hard to know what to do. You have to end up being an expert on azaleas and rhododendrons. My first taste of this was at Corneille Bryan Native Garden, a wonderful place in Lake Junaluska, NC.
    I would have to educate myself about the ones found in my area, Southeastern PA. It would help if sellers were more knowledgeable and made the effort to inform the public. Sigh!

  6. What an amazing assortment of azaleas Ellen and great information. I am appreciating them from afar although I don't like the site of them growing here in MN because they just look so out of place. I was wondering the same thing as Jeff - are the Augusta ones a mix of native and non-native? I heard they were well past finished flowering this year.

    Good luck with your plant sale!

  7. I am not familiar with the plantings in Augusta but my guess is that most of them are Japanese azaleas. I poked around on their site and they mention "deciduous and evergreen"; evergreen is surely Japanese and the deciduous could be native or not. You can imagine they would prefer to have as many evergreen ones as possible for year round "good looks".

  8. Love this post. My first experience with the native azaleas was the spring after the summer we plunked down a double-wide out in the woods. (I was about 12.) A pond had been dug, and on the far bank, early spring--a pink cloud. Delightful!