Befaria: A Distant Azalea Relative
August E. Kehr
Hendersonville, North Carolina
Unusual plants add interest to gardens. They especially add spice to the otherwise monotony of a clear planting of rhododendrons such as my own. Furthermore, when such plants have evergreen foliage and attractive flowers, they become meritorious plants in their own right. Befaria racemosa is such a plant. It becomes even more interesting when it is realized that it is one of the very rare ericaceous species found in South America. It has always been a mystery to me that the large and variable family of Ericaceae with its multiples of genera and species seem to be so common north of the equator and yet so rare south of it. Perhaps it was this quirk in the evolution of plants that first interested me in growing this true southern representative of its predominantly northern family.
Befaria is a genus composed of about fifteen species of Ericaceae native to Florida, Cuba, Mexico, and South America. These plants are evergreen shrubs and trees with flowers ranging in color from white to pink, yellow or red. The flowers are borne in racemes or panicles at the terminals of the branches.
Befaria racemosa has the common name of tarflower in Florida. Like its distant cousins, the evergreen azaleas, it is a shrub that sometimes grows to six feet tall. It has two-inch white flowers that appear in midsummer, and could easily be taken for an exotic azalea of some kind. Certainly the six or seven white petaled flower appears as much like an evergreen azalea as does the quite common azalea clone 'Koromo Skikibu'. In my view it is even more attractive.
This plant has been fully hardy for me in an exposed location for the past five years, during which temperatures dropped to zero with no snow cover. It is planted in full sun in a sandy, well-drained soil, surrounded by its small-leaved relatives of the rhododendron family, and provides a touch of color in midsummer long after its cousins have spent themselves with their own burst of spring and early summer flowers.
Strangely, this worthy plant is not mentioned in most plant and garden manuals. Nor is it found in the catalogs of any of the nurseries in my collection. I obtained my own from the Salter Tree Farm, Madison, Florida. I have not tried propagating it, though this year I did plant a few seeds.
For those venturesome souls who want to add something out of the ordinary to their gardens, this tarheel (adopted) highly recommends they try the tarflower, Befaria racemosa.
August Kehr is a long-time member of ARS, one of its technical reviewers and a rhododendron hybridizer.