Three Southern Azalea Species: R. Prunifolium, Austrinum and Speciosum
S. D. Coleman, Fort Gaines, GA
My observation is that the three azaleas R. prunifolium, austrinum and speciosum attract more attention on the Trail than all other native species; however the combined effect of all the azaleas blooming at this particular time presents a spectacular show.
R. austrinum, the "Southern Azalea," varies in its blooming period from the latter part of March through the month of April. R. speciosum, "Attractive, good looking, beautiful," blooms after R. austrinum and along with R. alabamense. Individual plants often bloom through the entire season. R. prunifolium, "Plum leaf Azalea" is the last of the series to bloom with individual plants blooming from mid June to November.
Ideas of conservation are changing rapidly. Once it was thought good conservation practice to leave our native plants undisturbed but if it had not been for a few successfully transplanted specimens many of our species would now be a thing of the past. In my section the huge Walter George dam, with its huge lake, will make a large dent in many of our species. Below us is the Jim Woodruff dam and lake and like others throughout the south it has engulfed countless woodlands and destroyed forever the native plant material of that area. The main habitat of R. prunifolium and R. minus is on the banks and tributaries of the Chattahoochee River, fortunately on what is thought of as the middle terrace.
Many years ago I realized that R. prunifolium was becoming scarce as the remaining small groups were widely scattered and there were few small plants. Woods burning seemed to be a bad habit and something had to be done to preserve this species, so I started collecting. In fact this was the beginning of "Coleman's Native Azalea Trail." Mr. and Mrs. Cason Callaway also put in a large collection of R. prunifolium at their home at Blue Springs, Hamilton, Georgia. From these plants they grew many seedlings which are now used in the plantings at the Ida Cason Callaway Gardens, at Pine Mountain, Ga.
This southern section being the natural habitat of R. prunifolium, my thought was to get as many variations as possible, from the earliest to the latest blooming forms and from the yellow-flowered plants to those with the deep red blooms. As there were no other azaleas growing or blooming in the vicinity where these were collected there is no evidence of crossbreeding in them. I do not have a massed blooming effect in my collection but rather a continuing bloom as I prefer some color on the Trail the year around. From these original plants I have made a large distribution. R. prunifolium was so named from the likeness to plum leaves from plants found near Cuthbert, Georgia. This is possibly the eastern border of their habitat, extending into Alabama about the same distance.
A few years ago a friend called one morning wanting to show me something new in azaleas (wild honey suckle he called them) which were growing above Georgetown, Ga. about twenty five miles from here. The plant was R. prunifolium growing near a spring. He insisted that I dig the plant but then I suggested that he clear out around it and let it grow as such specimens were getting scarce. Now the back waters of the dam will flood this beautiful specimen as well as many others in this area.
Plants are often lost in transplanting from the wild as the proper techniques of this delicate operation are not known. To successfully transplant from the wild, I have found that it is necessary to bring in some of the native soil along with the plant and to then cut the plant back to within inches of the ground and keep it well watered and mulched for a year. R. prunifolium will grow to about eighteen feet tall. It is a beautiful sight to see one of these plants in full bloom in high open woods. They grow on what I would call hilly country, on middle terrace, above the Chattahoochee valley. The three species that live in the valley are R. alabamense, R. canescens and R. aemulans.
R. prunifolium will come true from seed, there being no other species blooming near the time of the bloom of this plant; however R. serrulatum also blooms late further south, but I have not found them growing in the same area; the slight variation comes from inbreeding. Temperatures down to 12 degrees do not hurt these azaleas whereas many of the Far East azaleas were killed or damaged in the November freeze. Many of my first plantings on the Trail were made too close together, had more space been allowed there would now be better plants and more flowers. R. prunifolium begins blooming around the 15th of June and individual plants continue to November. There is no fragrance. The leaves and twigs are almost glabrous and there are no hairs on the tube. There are few flowers to the truss, but the size of the individual flowers makes up for the lack of quantity of bloom. Dr. John Wister tells me that he flowers this azalea in Pennsylvania.
R. austrinum, "Southern Azalea"
This Southern Azalea just touches the southern border of R. prunifolium and is the second earliest azalea to bloom. It has large pubescent buds and soft pubescent underside of the foliage, hairy twigs and stiff upright growth, much like R. canescens though the type of foliage is not so changeable as R. canescens, The yellow to orange flowers are many to the truss, sometimes making balls. Mostly they have plum colored tubes with yellow or orange lobes; once in a great while one can be found with all yellow or orange flowers, though these plants are rare. According to weather conditions these plants are in bloom from the latter part of March, first of April and last throughout the entire month.
The top border of their habitat is about Fort Gaines, Ga., due east by Albany. Ga., and extending south west to Mobile, Alabama, or further. There were only two plants on the Trail when we first cleared it. now there are many hundreds. Near Bluffton and on to Leary, Ga. are found the largest beds of these azaleas, growing in flat country on slow running streams. This is also where R. alabamense grows, blooming with and after R. austrinum. R. austrinum looks very much like R. canescens in its dormant stage. The three species, R. austrinum, R. canescens and R. alabamense are mixing some as the three bloom together in many places.
R. austrinum is one of the sights on the Trail as many have not seen the yellow form. Some have seen the yellow R. calendulaceum in the mountains but R. austrinum has a color of its own and with many flowers to a truss. It is a much faster growing plant and those on the Trail are fifteen feet high. I have possibly the first crossed hybrids of R. austrinum x R. canescens, and R. austrinum x R. alabamense. I find that some of the natural hybrids do not produce seed, showing that they are not self pollinators. I have some very interesting plants of hybrid origin, collected throughout the south; some are actually smaller than the supposed parents, whereas they should have taken on hybrid vigor. R. alabamense has small, cone-shaped, glabrous buds, ciliate bud scales, while R. austrinum has rounded, large pubescent buds. In these mixtures one can get the fragrance of the foliage from R. alabamense mixture. R. austrinum is a fast grower and will grow in most locations that suit R. canescens. The type foliage and plant is typical in R. austrinum while R. canescens has many variations.
R. speciosum, "Showy-Good Looking"
The habitat of this species is a wide band across the state of Georgia, running into the state of South Carolina on the eastern lower corner, the lower portion extending below the fall line to about Leesburg, Georgia. The first plants listed were the red types, how ever the plant seems to mix freely with R. canescens and we have quite a mixture of colors, and a few yellows "rare." The plant does not take on the pubescent bud from this cross. R. speciosum was named by someone who really knew beauty, as there is nothing so pretty as a large bed of mixed colors, blooming at the same time. It blooms along with R. alabamense and the later types of R. canescens. R. austrinum supply the yellow as the border probably runs into this species. R. speciosum has no fragrance, and no gland tipped hairs on the tube, unless of course it has picked up genes of some type that does have these glands. It was confused with R. calendulaceum for a long time, and some plants above Atlanta, Georgia, show this mixture. Plants received from this station show shorter tubes and are slightly sticky and again R. calendulaceum in that section blooms earlier than the ones further north.
The cow pasture plants shown in the Magazine of the Atlanta Journal some time back is one of the mixtures, R. speciosum, R. canescens and possibly some blood of R. calendulaceum; the white mentioned is possibly the late type of R. arborescens. and of course R. viscosum, a late one, blooms in that section. R. multiflorum and R. fastigifolium comes in on this mixture. A most interesting species.