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Azaleas Bring Unbeatable Southern Spring Beauty
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Hundreds of bright, brilliantly colored flowers are popping out all across the state. These are flowers that make other states with alkaline soil weep with jealousy. You know what I am referring to, the azalea, one of the most loved, revered and sought after shrubs anywhere.
With flowers ranging from 2 to 4 inches wide and in iridescent colors of purple, red, orange and white, it is no wonder they are so loved. Every once in a while, you read where some horticulturist rats on the azalea. Give me a break! The azalea has so many options for the landscape. In my neighborhood, I could drive around throughout the year and wonder why no one grows the azalea. Then in the spring I see those hedges burst forth in color and realize they are growing them. From a distance they look more like some other evergreen-screen.
Azaleas are not just for hedges and screens. They also are well suited to shrub beds, combined with hollies, and small trees like the dogwood and Bloodgood Japanese maple, and other spring- blooming shrubs. A bed of azaleas combined with Louisiana phlox is a sight to behold.
Southern Indica hybrids like Formosa (deep purple), Pride of Mobile (watermelon pink), G.G. Gerbing (white) and George Lindley Taber (light purple-pink) are the largest and are still some of my favorites. They are hardy down to near 10 degrees. I have been amazed the past few years to see swallowtail butterflies flocking to these azaleas.
The most cold hardy are Kurumes, Glen Dale Hybrids and Girard Hybrids, which are able to withstand temperatures below zero. There are scores of varieties in each of these groups. Robin Hill hybrids and Satsukis are known for blooming later, allowing the grower to lengthen the season. The new Encore group offers multiple bloom periods throughout the year. Deciduous native azaleas R. austrinum and R. canescens offer varieties with beauty and fragrance.
I see many azaleas in full sun, particularly the Indicas, but I prefer them in partial shade with moist, well-drained acid soil. In the long run, you will probably be happier with partial shade locations. Prepare the soil by incorporating 3 to 4 inches of organic matter and 2 pounds of a 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of planting area, tilling deeply. Dig the planting hole three to five times as wide as the root-ball but no deeper.
Azaleas are often pot bound, so be sure to check this carefully. If yours are pot bound, score the roots with a knife in about three locations from top to bottom. Place the azalea in the hole and backfill with soil, tamping and watering to settle. Apply 3 to 4 inches of mulch.
Watch the moisture the first year, particularly in light of the current weather patterns. Azaleas have shallow root systems, so maintain moisture and apply fresh mulch yearly. Feed four weeks after transplanting with a slow released 8-8-8 fertilizer or something similar, at the rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet of area. Feed existing azaleas in late winter and mid-summer with an azalea fertilizer.
We get a lot of questions about pruning. It is best to prune after spring bloom if needed. Try to do as little pruning as possible after mid-summer since next year's buds are beginning to form. The lacebug seems to be the azalea's archenemy. Watch leaves for the first sign of azalea lacebugs, and treat early with a recommended insecticide. I am seeing some at my house already.
Azaleas are as much a part of the South as okra or fried chicken. I would find it difficult to live without them.