Magnolia Plantation, up the Ashley River from Charleston, was the first home for these wowing imports from Japan. Now, just about every home garden and landscape in the Deep South boasts mounds of these flowering beauties, with the azalea becoming one of the symbols of the Southern garden and landscape.
Port cities such as Savannah, Jacksonville, Mobile, and New Orleans began bringing in these exotic flowers, which felt right at home in our climate. Sharing the same latitude lines as much of Japan, this pocket of the American South and Southern Japan have many of the same temperaments and cultivation requirements for many of the same plants, in turn, why we share so many of the same garden varieties and the species term japonica on many plants.
Yet, native azaleas were already thriving in the Americas and can still be seen flowering the undisturbed habitats and older landscapes of the South. R. flammean, the flame azalea, blooms in late April and even into May and is the color of its name – flame orange into the deepest coral. An absolutely stunning flowering shrub. Rhododendrons can be found all throughout Appalachia and bloom in shades of pink, white, and lavender in late spring. The R. catawbiense is named for the Catawba tribe, and their namesake flower can be found from Alabama to Virginia. R. atlanticum and R. alabamanse are quite striking natives that spread across Dixie. Native azaleas are loosely grouped into the white, pink, and red/orange group, and bloom about the same time as the Indicas and even later, thus providing your garden with weeks of azaleas blooms.
Why the South for such success with azaleas? Our mild winters and acidic soil are the main reasons. Rhododendron family members like an acidic soil, and our clay to loam growing mediums are perfect for them. With so many natives already thriving here, it was only natural to import some relatives from the Far East to complete the family. Success with azaleas is quite obtainable, and I encourage you to find some spots in your garden and landscape for them. Foundation plantings, understory plantings, and high hedgerows, azaleas are fantastic. There is nothing more elegant and quintessentially Southern than banks of ‘Formosa,’ ‘G.G. Gerbing,’ ‘Pride of Mobile,’ and ‘George Taber,’ the most recognized and traditional Southern azaleas, mounding under the dappled shade of pines. Augusta National…need I say more?
Tolerant of full sun but preferring partial shade, i.e. that lacey, pocketed light under the canopies of pines, dogwoods, Japanese maples, and crepe myrtles, azaleas do need that bit of light for floral production. Somewhat shallow rooted, azaleas won’t handle extreme drought nor extreme wet soil, so a well draining soil that allows the roots to collect water and not sit in it is preferable. Fertilizing through Miracid and other acid loving plant fertilizers is helpful as well.
Now as for pruning…this is a hot button for this Farmer. So many people butcher their azaleas into gosh awful shapes not occurring in nature. Azaleas are not meant to be cubes, rhombuses, boxes, or tight hedges, but graceful, mounding shrubs in an organic growth pattern. If your azaleas didn’t bloom, I bet it was because you pruned incorrectly. If your azalea is too big along your house, then you probably planted the wrong cultivar and you chopped it back into something out of horticultural horror film. Prune azaleas immediately after they have finished blooming to gently shape if need be. NO chainsaws, gas shears, or electric clippers needed. Simply snip and prune any “wild hairs” and allow your azaleas natural shape to prevail. For outgrown or neglected gardens, azaleas can be pruned severely and may take a few years to come back, but they will in time. Just leave the gas and electric tools in the shed.
I hope you have some Indica beauties in your yard and some natives as well. The native azaleas make for striking accent and specimen plants and R. indicum can be a backbone in the Southern garden. I think the azaleas of the Deep South are quite amazing in color, form, and hardiness. Enjoy them and be delighted by their presence in the landscape, and if you hear them softly speak in a severely Southern drawl, simply nod back in Southern gentility, and wish them a good day, ya’ll. From this Farmer’s garden to yours, happy gardening!