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Journal American Rhododendron Society

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Dr. Glen Jamieson ars.editor@gmail.com


Volume 62, Number 3
Summer 2008

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Saving Georgia's Native Azaleas
Ken Gohring
Marietta, Georgia

        For several years the Georgia Native Plant Society has used a plant rescue program to save native plants from destruction by concerns building homes, schools, roads, reservoirs and commercial buildings. The Atlanta area is and has been a rapidly growing metropolitan area as it experiences an influx of thousands of people annually. To provide housing and other basic needs for these people, a substantial amount of construction takes place, resulting in a sizable reduction in natural areas.
        The Georgia program became a viable program a few years back when member Jeane Reeves observed a construction crew bulldozing an area for construction. The equipment operators uprooted, among other vegetation, native azaleas in full bloom. Jeane, a lover of native plants, was quite disturbed and proceeded to talk with the construction crew and received permission to rescue some of the azaleas from the piles where they had been pushed. From that day on she resolved to work on a program of saving native plants. Her program consisted of contacting companies involved in construction and receiving permission to save plants that would otherwise be destroyed. She devised ways of learning where construction was to take place. She would then approach the developers and convince them of the merit of saving the plants. She was never confrontational. In many cases the developers would deny access to their property. However, many would cooperate and the program became very successful. Normally the society conducts an average of six to eight rescues a month for ten months of the year in various areas of metropolitan Atlanta. However, the recent drought conditions in Georgia have reduced the number of rescues.
        The rescued plants are transplanted, in many cases, to members' gardens but also to public gardens, schools and society restoration projects. Some plants are sold in an annual sale to provide funding for society projects. The author was fortunate to work with Jeane for several years and learned from her an appreciation for natives and the ability to identify various native plants. These efforts required many hours in natural areas to determine the availability of desirable species worthy of rescue. While admittedly biased, the author over the years has found no plants comparable to native azaleas.
        Georgia is a state blessed with numerous native azaleas. With the recent classification of R. colemanii, the number of species found in the state reached twelve. There are indications that R. vaseyi is found in the northeast part of the state, but this has not been verified. The number of species found in the metropolitan Atlanta area is somewhat smaller. The predominant species found on plant rescues in the Atlanta area is the Piedmont azalea, R. canescens, which is found over a wide range statewide and nationally. The necessity of good lighting for this species to bloom is well documented. This is obvious when encountering it in the woods. Large healthy specimens are found frequently in the understory of large trees. However, in most cases the plants will exhibit flowering and fruiting habits only in the uppermost extremities of the plants unless they are growing adjacent to open areas. At the home of the author, a small creek has numerous such plants that rarely bloom. However, in some adjacent neighboring homes where the vegetation has been cleared, the plants flourish and exhibit dazzling displays of fragrant pink flowers each spring.

R. canescens    R. canescens
R. canescens
Photo by Ellen Honeycutt
   R. canescens
Photo by Ken Gohring
 
R. canescens    R. canescens
R. canescens
Photo by Ken Gohring
   R. canescens
Photo by Ken Gohring

        Various transplanting techniques are used in rescuing native azaleas. Some move the entire plant with a large dirt ball. Others get a large dirt ball but cut the plant back significantly. Other rescuers will cut the plant back and remove all the earth from around the roots and place the plants in plastic to help prevent drying of the roots. Some report that by maintaining an adequate watering program they are able to keep even the largest plants alive, and after a period of adjustment they produce new growth. Very little success is achieved with plants moved in the summer unless they are cut back significantly. Usually rescuers will try to avoid cutback on budded plants or will cut back but leave a small number of buds if possible so that desirability of the specimen can be determined at bloom time. This practice of saving buds also helps provide a more positive identification of the rescued plants.
        Another fine azalea found on rescues is the Oconee azalea, R. flammeum. This is a prized species sought by many rescuers who are knowledgeable of the species' desirable qualities. This species is difficult to distinguish from R. canescens in many cases. However, there are some distinguishing features that enable identification. Difficulty of identification is compounded whenever both species are found in the same area and it is the time of year when neither blooms nor buds are present. However, at other times the two species can be identified by the following differences:
        • Color of bloom. Most R. flammeum blooms are orange, although yellow, red and even pink forms are found. Most R. canescens are almost always a shade of pink but sometimes white.
        • Fragrance. Most R. canescens have some fragrance while R. flammeum does not.
•Shape of buds. The buds of R. canescens are best described as chunky with a relatively blunt end, whereas the buds of R. flammeum are narrower and are pointed on the end.
        • Plant size. R. canescens is usually a larger plant than R. flammeum. R. flammeum blooms earlier in its life cycle. Many are found blooming at height of to 10 to 12 inches, unlike R. canescens which does not bloom at such stages.

R. flammeum    R. flammeum
R. flammeum
Photo by Patricia Yeatts
   R. flammeum
Photo by Joe Coleman

        Rhododendron canescens blooms about a week or so before R. flammeum; however, there is a relatively long period of overlap and the species do cross-pollinate. The most common form is a plant with a fragrant bloom that is pink with a yellow blotch. Other lovely forms are found as well including white with one petal yellow, yellow blooms and other variations, usually fragrant. Buds of hybrids usually have a sharper point than R. canescens and a body somewhat fuller than R. flammeum. Rhododendron canescens, for the most part, is found along or near ravines and steams, whereas R. flammeum is found on hillsides under taller growing trees. Rhododendron flammeum will bloom in shaded areas much better than R. canescens. Many maintain that very few pure species are found in the wild and almost all native azaleas have mixed heritage.

R. canescens X R. flammeum
R. canescens X R. flammeum
Photo by Ken Gohring

        In the Atlanta area other species found include R. calendulaceum, R. viscosum and R. arborescens. The author rescued R. calendulaceum in north Fulton County, home county for Atlanta, fairly close to the Chattahoochee River. They were discovered in bloom and were readily identified from their size of leaves and blooms. Both orange and yellow forms were found, blooming in the first part of May. Rhododendron arborescens, the sweet or smooth azalea, is easily identified from the smooth stems, and specimens are usually found very close to streams, where plants cannot be dug. The society has a strict policy of adhering to government stream setback limitations. A R. viscosum was discovered in bloom at one site and identified by a rescuer who had the same species in bloom in her native garden. This particular site, where a reservoir is being built, has four species, R. canescens, R. flammeum, R. arborescens and R. viscosum present and apparently many hybrids, mostly of the first two species. Many of these hybrids with buds have been dug. Several attractive plants with diverse color forms have been found. As the development of Atlanta proceeds, the rescue areas expand, opening up more possibilities for the discovery of new forms.
        The rescue program also results in many other native plants being saved. Many of these plants are relatively common and are easily moved with good survival success. At times rare and protected plants are discovered. However, some species resist movement. The society has worked closely with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to help save these species. In some cases special rescues are held to move species like Cypripedium acaule, pink lady slipper, to public parks where good maintenance is likely. The rescue of native plants support one of the stated goals of the society: "...promote the stewardship and conservation of Georgia's native plants..." Its plant rescue program is one way in which the society tries to conserve native plants.

Ken Gohring is a member of the Azalea Chapter


Volume 62, Number 3
Summer 2008

DLA Ejournal Home | JARS Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JARS and other ejournals