Evergreen azaleas are the most common shrubs found throughout much of the East Coast. You can’t walk down a street in Richmond, VA without seeing masses of azaleas in almost every yard. They bloom profusely in spring and then fade to the background as just another green shrub that needs occasional pruning. These azaleas are so commonly used that many people would be surprised to learn that they are in fact not native. What may be more surprising is that there are gorgeous native azaleas that are rarely sold in nurseries. Why is this? The only answer I can think of is that non native azaleas are evergreen while native ones are mostly all deciduous. I’m about to go on a bit of a rant and then I promise I will get to the point of this blog post which is describing native azaleas in all their glory.
Okay, so for some reason over the years the idea of having a deciduous shrub in a landscape has become a negative thing. It’s as if plants that lose their leaves are inferior to evergreens. While design wise it makes sense to have evergreen shrubs on the foundation of a house, it’s not necessary most other ares in the landscape. I would like to propose the idea that evergreen shrubs are in fact inferior to deciduous shrubs from most design and aesthetic standpoints. As I said, evergreens definitely have their place in design, but when looking for seasonal interest they just don’t compare. The primary example of this is fall color. Most deciduous plants have incredible fall color. Many also have fruits/berries that cling to the stems of the shrubs after the leaves have fallen. Some plants such as redtwig dogwood and itea have colorful architectural stems that give great winter interest and would be unnoticed if the leaves remained. Finally, one of the best features is getting to see the new growth take form in early spring. Some plants such as buckeyes, native azaleas, and sumacs really put on a show. Deciduous shrubs make walking through your yard an exciting adventure each season of the year.
Now on to Native Azaleas!
Like their non-native relatives, native azaleas prefer to be an under-story plant. This means they want some protection from hot afternoon sun. They also need good drainage. If you have clay soil consider planting them up a few inches out of the ground and mounding dirt around them to help keep their roots from sitting in water.
There are many different types of Native Azaleas but I would like to showcase just a few for this post:
Rhododendron Canescens (Piedmont Azalea):
This is a large growing Azalea that can reach heights of 15′. It is great as a specimen or used in mass as a border or screen. The lite pink flowers smell incredible and will bloom for 2 weeks to a month depending on weather conditions. Their blooms typically open up in early to mid April. This is a great option for a large shrub that will make all the neighbors jealous!
Rhododendron Calendulaceum (Flame Azalea):
This Azalea gets its name from the vibrant orange/red flowers that cover it in early to mid spring (May-June). It can reach heights of 12′ and is also perfect as a specimen or screen. Unlike Canescens, Flame Azalea is not fragrant. However, what it lacks in the olfactory department it more than makes up for in the visual!
Rhododendron Atlanticum (Coastal Azalea)
Need a smaller growing azalea? This is the one for you. Most reach a height of 2-4′. They have fragrant white to pink blooms and work great as a foundation plant intermixed with other evergreens. One cultivar we like a lot is ‘Marydel’. It has medium pink flowers and gets about 4′ tall.
Beautiful right? Spring is the true highlight of native azaleas but fall isn’t far behind either. On most species the leaves turn a vibrant orange/red before dropping and revealing a beautiful branch structure that provides great winter interest.
If you live in the Richmond, VA area and would like to purchase native azaleas we recommend Colesville Nursery in Ashland. They are the only nursery around that carries a large amount of native azaleas. They also have a great assortment of other native plants as well.
Thanks for reading!
Plant by Design LLC