I Find Native Azaleas The Most Interesting of the Rhododendron Family
By S. D. Coleman
Should Azaleas Be Called Rhododendrons?
Due to my interest over many years and vast collection of our native species of azaleas including the rhododendrons, I am glad to express my opinion concerning the botany of the genus rhododendron. Seemingly, confusion has existed in nomenclature from the beginning of time. Botanists, horticulturists, collectors, and others have their own idea of the naming of plants. Fortunately, with the many organizations pertaining to plants, much of the confusion is being cleared up.
We will have to admit that there is a relation between azaleas and rhododendrons. Botanists have separated the plants into series and subseries, but time has established the name azalea on a particular type of plant and the azalea name should stand, as many plants would have to be renamed such as Azalea 'Pink Pearl', Rhododendron 'Pink Pearl'- R. arboreum, R. arborescens, and many more.
As to our native rhododendrons in the southeast, five species have been named. They are listed as they bloom, R. chapmanii, R. carolinianum, R. minus. The three all do well in this section and have about the same color range of different shades of pink. Whites are found once in a while. The foliage is not so large as other rhododendrons and would fit more places as landscape material than the large leafy type. Our plant breeders in time will cross these plants with the fine hybrids to produce plants for our southland. Rhododendron maximum and R. catawbiense are mountainous plants and do not do so well here.
Now as to our native species azalea, these plants have been here many thousands of years and seemingly all connected in some way, some very closely. How long they were separated to form separate species I would not know, but we do find many of the southern species that look very much like their northern cousins. Azalea viscosum growing in the north is classed as a swamp plant. Azalea serrulata from South Georgia into North Florida is also a swamp plant, both late bloomers and very much alike. Also related to this group are A. oblongifolia, A. padulicola, A. montana, A. N. H. and one that will possibly be named for the writer, R. colemani. In drifting south these plants possibly got separated and formed separated species. The blooming dates are different and there is a difference in the foliage, buds, and growth, but all are classed as late bloomers. All are fragrant and each of these species have their own variations, some very closely connected with the other. A. viscosa is also found in various shades of pink.
We have twenty or more azalea species, the list can be revised either up or down. Some will possibly be combined and more species will be found. I believe Georgia will still be ahead with the number of species, with Alabama running a close second. Azalea canescens, the most abundant species through the south, is a beautiful pink growing above spring heads and up and down branches and creeks, having possibly more variations than other species. Pure whites are sometimes found, one double has been moved to the Trail. This species is the earliest to bloom and the blooming date can be extended by selecting plants. Plants of North Georgia are the last to bloom and after being moved will continue to bloom after the southern type. There is no prettier setting than a combination of 'Pride of Mobile' azaleas and A. canescens. Beautiful combinations can be made up of the native species, A. alabamense, a beautiful white and also many variations of pink, blooming at the same time with A. speciosa, a red and also having many variations. Although I think the grouping of several of the same species make a beautiful show. The groupings of Azalea austrinum on the Azalea Trail in the early spring seemingly create quite a thrill to the ones not having seen the yellows in bloom.
I have traveled many miles in making this collection and the thought was to separate superior strains and propagate as clones so that a better distribution could be made of these beautiful plants. Right in the beginning I ran into trouble; they are very difficult to propagate from cuttings. Growing plants by separation and layering is too slow for very good distribution. I did not stop in making my personal collection for the Trail. My vacation is taken each spring going to some distant station looking for something new, and I always run into something interesting. I find the A. canescens in central Louisiana to be about the same as the ones of this section, and there they do not have other species to mix and mingle with.
Many of our native species are being moved each year, some by professional some by just plant lovers who see the plants in bloom and just want then, and by not taking the proper care these plants are mostly lost. Then there are the clearing up for pastures and the burnings all taking a toll. Plants dug from the wild should be cut back within three inches of the ground. and properly wrapped at once to be moved successfully. It is also best to plant in woods soil, properly mulched, watered and shaded for first year or two. Nursery grown plants can be handled the same as other rhododendrons or azaleas. It is much better to plant three to five or more of the same species to a group and you will really get a show. Azalea arborescens, one of the beautiful white mountain stream type, likes to grow and not bloom for me down south, but I do not give up. The name tells me that it is of tree type and I am sure I will have flowers when the plants get to be trees. While I am waiting I will get plants from different sections and I am sure I will find some that like conditions here after being planted in some of the same type soil that they came from, a nice plant and blooms with and just after A. calendulacea. When in bloom in the mountains it wafts you its fragrance some time before you locate the plant.
Fig. 10 S. D. Coleman admiring R. minus on the
In speaking of botanical names I recall that I looked over a period of several years for Azalea serrulata and covered many miles looking for an azalea with serrated leaves. I finally decided to study a little further, and found that I have been collecting many of the plants, but the foliage was no more serrated than other azaleas and as yet I don't know why it was given this name. The plant is very easily identified, late blooming, foliage, reddish brown new growth, and it does grow very tall. I believe it will also stand wet feet, however, it can be planted in same type soil as other natives. Flowers not so large, but fragrant.
Another series belonging to the subseries luteum, having no fragrance and the color range through lemon and spectrum yellow to orange and vermillion, crimson possibly found in two or three species. All have the orange or yellow blotch on the upper lobe. I will name them in blooming rotation. Azalea multiflora a beautiful red blooming at time of A. canescens; A. speciosa, blooming at time of A. alabaense; A. calendulacea; A. cumberlandense; A. bakeri. The last two are very closely related, possibly geographical varieties, and A. prunifolia blooming in July to September. By selecting plants of each species, the blooming date can be extended from early spring until winter.
(NOTE: S. D. Coleman is proprietor of S. D. Coleman Nurseries at Fort Gaines, Georgia, and maintains one of the state's tourist attractions: His Native Azalea Trail in a wooded area nearby.)