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Give Native Azaleas A Closer Look In '99
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
The environment where I grew up made azaleas out of the question, so the site of all our azaleas erupting into spectacular blooms astounds me.
I'm further amazed that the native azaleas haven't caught on around here. Perhaps it's because growers haven't perfected the mass production of these azaleas or that demand is so great for the other azaleas. Maybe it is simply not worth the time, expense and effort to grow these on a grand scale.
When I mention native azaleas, which are rhododendron species, most consumers do not know about them. People who do know about them are quick to respond that these azaleas are deciduous. Retail garden centers are lightning quick to tell me consumers will not buy them because they are deciduous. But what rulebook says azaleas have to be evergreen?
Is deciduous a dirty word? I did hear one radio station call them "desidious" azaleas as if that word was related to "insidious." Gardeners buy flowering quince, forsythia, barberries, roses and umpteen tree species that are deciduous. Some azaleas that are reportedly evergreen have leaves that look pretty bad by spring anyway.
Would you like an azalea with bright, irredescent orange flowers? How about bold yellow flowers or azalea flowers that look so much like a honeysuckle you have to examine the plant and then convince yourself that it is not a woody honeysuckle?
If some of these colors would appeal to your spring garden, start shopping. They are around but in small quantities. When the demand increases, so will the number and varieties.
My favorites are some of the varieties of Rhododendron austrinum, which are native from Mississippi to Florida. Despite this large geographic area, they are called Florida azalea.
There have been selections of the species made such as Adams Orange that is a deep orange, Autrinum Gold that is a brilliant, goldish-orange, and Harrisons Red that is a rosy-red. There are many more selections out there, and some have great fragrances.
The other prominent native azalea is the Rhododendron canescens, which is called the Piedmont azalea and around here the honesuckle azalea. This one mostly comes in shades of pink-rose and white with an awesome fragrance.
Other species that are not native to Mississippi but are from southeastern states perform well, such as the Rhodendron alanticum or coast azalea. The Rhododendron prunifolium, or plumleaf azalea, blooms in midsummer and does well in all but the coastal counties.
How you would use native azaleas may be the real question to ask yourself. Consider a color wheel when creating bold plantings of native azaleas with favorite Southern Indica azaleas and dogwoods. Bright yellow-gold and purple works for lantanas and verbenas, Mardi Gras, Alcorn State University, and it will work with azaleas, too!
Enjoy shopping for azaleas of all kinds this spring, and keep your eyes peeled for those native species. They are a good buy.