Living in North Florida for most of my life, I grew up with vibrant azalea blossoms coloring my springs and summers. When my husband and I decided to become homeowners, the house we chose had been vacant for over a year. Wanting to clean-up the yard, I heartlessly ripped out the neglected, leggy azaleas in the front yard and replaced them with non-native boxwoods. Oh, how the sins of my youth have come back to haunt me! It wasn’t until I spent some time running through the trails at Callaway Gardens that I came to appreciate the many forms, colors, and scents of the azalea. Azaleas do not simply blossom into unscented delicate pink or white flowers, but possess deep reds, fiery oranges, and bold clusters of blossoms, heavy with fragrances reminiscent of warm honey, woody cinnamon, and zesty lemon. I was fortunate enough to visit Callaway Gardens during the second week of April. Peak bloom time for the gardens is between March 15 and April 29.
During stewardship team training week, the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust Land Stewards got together in the Okefenokee Swamp and were lucky enough to have wildlife biologist Vic VanSant, recently retired from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, join us to further educate the team about the ecology of the Southern Coastal Plains ecoregion. It was then that I was informed that the majority of the azalea species I’d known growing up weren’t native to North America but were introduced to the region. Can you imagine my disillusionment? As it turns out, the azaleas that remain so prominent in my memory weren’t the deciduous native species but appeared as evergreen bushes year round and added a delightful flourish of color in the spring and summer.
I felt dejected. I should’ve known this about such a prominent plant in my region—the place I call home. After learning this, I charged myself to learn more about the native azalea species in the region, not only for my knowledge as a Land Steward but also because my family and I recently moved to Valdosta, Georgia, aptly named the Azalea City. I figured if I hadn’t known this fact, perhaps it’s not too far off to imagine that other folks in our region may not have either. This article is my opportunity to briefly share with you what I’ve learned.
Did you know azaleas are part of the genus Rhododendron? However, not all rhododendrons are azaleas. The azalea is a member of the Heath family, Ericaceae, along with other well-known plants like blueberries and mountain laurel. The easiest way to distinguish a native versus non-native azalea is by the seasons. Evergreen azaleas originated in Asia while North American azalea species are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in winter. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, because deciduous azaleas are also found in Eastern Europe and Asia. To get to the point, here’s a list of native azalea species found in Alabama and Georgia, provided by the Azalea Society of America.
- Alabama azalea ( alabamense)
- Piedmont azalea ( canescens)
- Flame azalea ( calendulcaeum)
- Smooth azalea ( arborescens)
- Coastal azalea ( atlanticum)
- Pinxterbloom azalea ( periclymenoides)
- Swamp azalea ( viscosum)
- Florida azalea ( austrinum)
- Cumberland azalea ( cumberlandense)
- Oconee azalea ( flammeum)
- Early azalea ( prinophyllum)
- Hammocksweet azalea ( serrulatum)
- Red Hills azalea ( colemanii)
- Plumleaf azalea ( prunifolium)
Introduced Azaleas and Hybrids
Evergreen species of azaleas are native to Asia, most prominently Japan. There are basically nine species groups of Asian azaleas. Some common evergreen hybrids we see in our region originate from the Kyushu group: (R. kaempferi), (R. kiusianum) (R. sataense), and (R. komiyamae). From this group, R. kaempferi hybrids are among the hardiest and most common. It is believed that the Kurume hybrids were developed from the Kyushu group. The other most common group of non-native evergreen hybrids stem from the Indica group (R. indicum, R. Tamurae). The Indica group includes the large, early blooming Southern Indicas found abundantly in our region, as well as the specialized, typically container-bound, Japanese Satsuki hybrids. Satsuki is translated as “fifth month”, which makes reference to the blooming season. From the Formosa group, R. oldhamii has been crossed with numerous Asian evergreen azaleas to create the Encore azaleas. Encore azaleas are known for their blooms, which occur in both spring and fall. In fact, the Encore azaleas are perhaps the best-selling group of flowering shrubs in the United States. See articles “Evergreen Species” and “The Aromi Evergreen Hybrids” posted by the Azalea Society of America on their website.
Countless hybrid azaleas have been cultivated to better suit the heat and droughts of Alabama and Georgia. In the 1970s, the late Dr. Eugene Aromi cultivated both evergreen and deciduous azaleas out of Mobile, Alabama. Dr. Aromi’s collection, as well as many other collections, can be found at the Mobile Botanical Gardens. Another cultivator hailing from Semmes, Alabama at the Dodd & Dodd Nursery was Bob Schwindt, who manipulated the deciduous Exbury azaleas originally created in Ghent, Belgium to endure the heat of the South. A prominent advocate of deciduous azalea hybrids was Fred Galle, who was a director of horticulture at Callaway Gardens (1953-1979). A company by the name of Transplant Nursery in Lavonia, Georgia has also developed deciduous azalea species specific to our climate.
Surprisingly, the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council suggests the use of non-native azalea species in place of invasive non-native shrubs. So, although the non-natives are used prevalently throughout the country, they do not compete ecologically with the native azaleas. According to Dr. Sandra F. McDonald, plant geneticist and former President of the Middle Atlantic Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, the overwhelming cause for the rarity of native azaleas is due to habitat destruction and increased development. Additionally, Patrick Thompson, an arboretum specialist for Auburn’s Davis Arboretum and a contributor to this article, suggests that indigenous azaleas often produce more nectar and pollen, thus encouraging more visitation from bees, birds, and butterflies. The visitation from more pollinators strengthens the local ecosystem.
To combat the loss of native azalea habitat, several entities are either cultivating and selling native species or directing gardeners to nurseries in their state where they can purchase native species. These include the Azalea Society of America, The American Rhododendron Society, Callaway Gardens, The Donald E. Davis Arboretum at Auburn University, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and the Georgia Native Plant Society.
It’s confounding to think about how many centuries of work have gone into making the azalea what it is today. Organizations that I would recommend in locating and identifying elusive native azaleas, which have greatly contributed to the strength and information in this article, would be the Azalea Society of America, the Georgia Native Plant Society, the University of Georgia Extension Publication “Selecting and Growing Azaleas,” and The Donald E. Davis Arboretum at Auburn University. Regardless whether you scream “Roll Tide,” “War Eagle,” “Go Dawgs,” or bleed Orange and Blue like me, we all root for a more sustainable region.