A Short Guide to The Native Azalea
By Walter G. Beasley
Reprinted from The Rosebay
It is difficult for me to discuss native azaleas without resorting to the ecstatic enthusiasm that William Bartram expressed when he rounded a bend in the Savannah river and saw "Flame Azalea" in bloom for the first time. Bartram's experience occurred a few miles from our present home. Bartram also ate fresh salmon from this river. About 200 years later calendulaceum has become a rarity and salmon extinct.
Native azaleas are coming back! Interest in the natives is very high in the William Bartram and Azalea Chapters of the A.R.S. Canescens and nudiflorum are plentiful in the wild and are still called bush honeysuckle. Our customers, who normally buy one red, one white and one pink azalea, are beginning to purchase the orange, yellow and red forms of the natives. The State of Georgia has finally adopted the native azalea as the official state wildflower.
The culture of native azaleas is pleasingly easy. We plant in a mixture of one-half rich woods earth, taken from hardwood woods, and one-half pine bark. All our plants are planted level with the ground or in raised beds. Plants for sale are grown in containers in the same mix.
Natives enjoy an abundance of water but once established are remarkably drought resistant. They respond in kind to the level of care given them. We fertilize our plants once a month with Osmocote 14-14-14 during the growing season. Our rule on this is simple - light and often.
A good 50% of natives in the wild never bloom, or bloom sparingly. Inadequate sunlight is the obvious reason for this. Our best plants are grown in 3/a sun, or under deciduous trees where they receive full sun in the spring and shade during the hot summer. Adequate sun results in stocky plants that set multiple buds. Multiple budding means ball trusses at blooming time. Plants that flower heavily obviously need more care in the form of water and fertilizer.
Native azaleas are remarkably tough. I have seen plants, burned to the ground in forest fires, regenerate to their former size and bloom profusely in two years time. I have seen them defoliate from drought in mid summer and sucker out anew with the fall rains. Despite their touchiness they are opportunists that luxuriate under good care.
Natives -in order of bloom:
canescens: The native of my childhood that dares to bloom half naked in the yet bare woods and break the grip of winter. Blooms white to pink and fragrance is fair to fabulous. Height 5 to 15 feet.
austrinum: Pale cream to deep orange. We have a form that is pure gold with no red in the tubes. Flowers are small and numerous, fragrance delightful. Grows 5 to 15 feet and blooms in early April.
alabamense: White with yellow blotch. Dwarf, twiggy-our form is not the best. Fragrance is mild and nice.
vaseyi: White to deep pink-freckled with brown orange. Grows 5 to 10 feet and has beautiful fall foliage.
nudiflorum: Near purple to light pink. Fragrant, grows 5 to 8 feet. Ingrades with canescens are common here.
Choptank River Hybrids: From Polly Hill's find on the Choptank River (atlanticum x nudiflorum). Low - from 2 to 4 feet. Large flowers - white to good rich pinks. Fragrance is pleasantly strong and clove like. Permeates the whole garden. Plants range in height from 18 inches to 4 feet at ten years of age. We have one form that is far superior to its pod mates - a good rich pink that blooms like nothing else in the garden. Still another form is a natural dwarf - 18 x 18 inches at ten years and so dense that none of the limbs are visible when it is in leaf. The flowers on this form are snow white and extremely fragrant
speciosum: Clear yellow through orange to blood red-flowers ½ to 2 inches across. Will set as many as 12 buds in a cluster, resulting in baseball trusses. Its hybrids with canescens will range in color from pale apricot to red all with yellow blotches and fragrant. A collection of speciosum hybrids run the gamut of peach, pink, yellow, orange and red shades. Height is 2 to 6 feet.
calendulaceum: Flame azaleas start blooming April 15 and continue to bloom through the month of June. Blooming time seems to be determined by the altitude of origin. Flowers run large to three inches and come in all shades of yellow, orange and red. Some forms show distinct striping at the joints of petals. Flames are not fragrant but make up for this with superior form and color. Grows 6 to 12 feet.
arborescens: Magnificent large white that blooms about the first of July for us. Some forms (probably hybrids) have showy yellow blotch. We found a group of arborescens growing at 3500 foot elevation on a dry ridge. None of the plants in the colony were over three feet high and were extremely twiggy and dense. Our normal streamside plants are 8 to 16 feet tall. By far, the best midseason white!
bakeri: The beautiful foliage and flowers have a peculiar porcelain-like sheen that makes them most attractive. They come in all shades of yellow through orange to blood red. It blooms at the same time as arborescens. Bakeri is low, normally flat topped and non-fragrant. Some of the wild "dwarf" forms will grow rapidly to 5 feet when given adequate soil, moisture and fertilizer.
viscosum: Blooms two weeks after arborescens and comes in a poor second in all other categories.
prunifolium: Blooms during the month of August in beautiful shades of range and red. Blooms are large and showy. Easy to grow - truly a magnificent plant. Height is 5 to 15 feet.
serrulatum: A long tube, small flowered fragrant white. Blooms August into September. Worth growing because of its blooming time.
arborescens-bakeri hybrids, arborescens-prunifolium hybrids: Bloom in June and July. The colors are white, yellow, pink, peach, watermelon, orange, and red and all combinations thereof. These two groups of hybrids will cause one to wear out one's color chart. Together they duplicate the entire color range of occidentale.
Classification: As far as I am concerned this is a job for those people who are experts. Pure species are easy. Hybrids are difficult to impossible. Twenty years ago I would have given a definite answer to all questions related to classification. Now, one would get an opinion at best. If a hybrid cannot be categorized by plant characteristics and circumstantial evidence, we simply refer to it as "probably a thus and such", relax and enjoy the beauty of the creation.
All of our plants except austrinum, serrulatum, speciosum and prunifolium come from the mountains of North Georgia and points north. Our climate in North Georgia is anything but benign. We enjoy temperature extremes from + 100 degrees Fahrenheit to -5 degrees Fahrenheit. The winters of 1976-77 and 1977-78 were arctic like. We were frozen solid for 16 weeks in 1976-77 and 14 weeks in 1977-78. None of our native azaleas showed any ill effects from this extreme cold.
Blooming times for the natives vary with the year. About one out of three years, we will have all the early and midseason species bloom simultaneously.
Propagation: By seeds is easy. The best procedures are identical to those used in handling seed from lepidote rhododendrons. We are getting bloom buds in two years from many of our crosses. Rooting cuttings is the bad news of this business. My wife, Mary, is a superb propagator; yet, she is constantly frustrated by the whims of the natives. Rooting response varies from plant to plant, season to season. We have a lovely Flame azalea that is pale pink with a canary yellow blotch. In three years we managed to root seven plants from it. This spring we put down eighty cuttings and rooted fifty. We have found Choptank hybrids to be the easiest and speciosum to be the most difficult. We keep trying.
Propagation by root cuttings is easy and yields a high percentage of plants. When plants are dug or potted any roots that are removed are cut into 4 inch section and placed flat down in flats of pine bark.. In three months to one year these root pieces will develop tops and can be potted to grow.
Hybridization: Our son, Jeff, is our best two eyed bumblebee. He keeps good records also. We are working on crosses using our Choptank C-1 and yellows, canescens x speciosum, prunifolium x arborescens and bakeri x arborescens. Jeff's enthusiasm escalated 400% when his first hybrid bloomed. He is trying desperately to decide which clone to name after his girl friend.
During the period between 19551965, I took on the rewarding task of planting two million trees on worn out cotton land. It is a real joy to walk over this land and see it at peace again. The scars of abuse are healed, erosion is arrested, and native azaleas, ferns, native orchids and trilliums are coming back. One cannot live amidst the complexities of nature without developing a simple and practical philosophy. Namely, no one ever owns a plant. We are at best custodians. Our job as gardeners is to please the plant by providing its simple requirements. Where ever this attitude prevails, the garden and the gardener grow in loveliness!
Rosebay Note: Walter G. Beasley is both a farmer and nurseryman. He has spent all of his life amongst the plants about which he writes. He and his wife, Mary, are the proprietors of TRANSPLANT NURSERY, a nursery highly specialized in native azaleas, as well as hybrids and rhododendron. He writes that along with Robin Hill azaleas and Dexter rhododendrons, natives "constitute the three faces of our madness". He is a member of both the Azalea and William Bartram Chapters of the A.R.S. and vice-president of the latter chapter.