Since 1979, the native azalea has been the official state wildflower of Georgia. A certain variety was not chosen since several different species occur naturally in every county in Georgia.
Native azaleas are a member of the rhododendron family and are deciduous shrubs. Most varieties of these wild azaleas have highly fragrant blooms. Bloom color is spectacularly diverse and can be white, pink, yellow, orange, red, or any combination of those colors. With several species planted, you can have blooms in your garden from March all the way through August.
These wild azaleas naturally occur in the woods, but they will often flower much more profusely when planted in full sun. Some species cannot take direct sunlight, but most varieties can tolerate morning sun or filtered sun beneath tall deciduous hardwood trees. Beneath large oak trees is an ideal location for native azaleas, since the fallen oak leaves contribute to an acid soil favored by all azaleas.
Native rhododendrons will become more drought tolerant once established, but water regularly the first few years.
Well-drained soil is necessary for the survival of all azaleas, but Rhododendron viscosum, commonly referred to as the Swamp Azalea, can grow in wetter soil where it will receive ample water to grow large and full.
The early spring blooming native azaleas form their bloom buds in late summer, right when Georgia is usually experiencing a drought. To insure that you have fragrant blooms to enjoy in March and April, water your azaleas weekly during August and September unless it is raining regularly.
A very popular native azalea species is Rhododendron Austrinum, the Florida Flame Azalea. The Florida Azalea is prized for its colorful fragrant blooms appearing in early March. This is one of the easiest wild azaleas to grow, since it tolerates heat and drought once established.
If pink is your color, you have more than one choice. Most often seen in the woods of Georgia is the Piedmont Azalea, Rhododendron canescens. This wild azalea is also easy to grow and will eventually become a large specimen. Bloom color on this one can actually vary on individual plants though, and you might end up with flowers that are more white than pink.
That is also true of Rhododendron colemanii, the Red Hills Azalea. Native to the Red Hills of Alabama, this azalea can also be found growing wild near the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. Blooms on this one can be white, pink, yellow, or orange.
As you can see in the photo above, the Red Hills Azalea can have both yellow and pink on the same plant. If you prefer a pink bloomer on either the Piedmont or the Red Hills Azalea, choose your plants in spring when they are in bloom.
For a white garden, you have several choices. In addition to the Swamp Azalea, you might choose either the Sweet Azalea or the Alabama Azalea for fragrant white flowers. Rhododendron arborescens is often considered to have the loveliest flowers of all. Solid white blooms are deliciously fragrant, which is probably the reason for its common name of Sweet Azalea.
The Alabama Azalea, Rhododendron alabamense, can be found growing in Georgia as well. White blooms with a bright yellow blotch smell like lemons. This wild azalea is very drought tolerant once established, making itself at home on dry rocky slopes in Alabama and Georgia. Even if summer drought kills the topgrowth, this shrub will usually send up new stems from the roots the next spring.
One of the more difficult to grow native azaleas is also one of the most beautiful. Made famous by Callaway Gardens is the red blooming Plumleaf Azalea, Rhododendron Prunifolium. This plant occurs naturally only in a few counties in Georgia and Alabama in the Chattahoochee River Valley. Blooms are a vivid red or orange red. The Plumleaf Azalea needs a spot in the garden more shaded and cool. Rhododendron prunifolium wants no direct sunlight whatsoever. Don't forget to water this one during periods of drought or you'll lose it.
|Rhododendron Prunifolium, Plumleaf Azalea|
The most common problem with growing native azaleas is actually finding some available for sale in the first place. Most varieties of wild azaleas are either protected or endangered, so it is unlawful to dig them from the wild for transplanting in your garden. Online nurseries are a great source for native plants of all kinds, including native azaleas. A good selection of these fragrant native azaleas and many other native plants can be found at Shady Gardens Nursery.