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Azaleas at the Center for the Environment Light Up Early Spring

April 30, 2010

Category: Environmental Science

 Flame AzaleaBy Sherry Walker, Master Gardener (

This time of year, many gardens in the area are bursting with colorful blooms from azaleas, most of which are hybridized plants.

Another genus of azalea is a native one that lurks in few gardens but is gaining in popularity as people look to garden with native plants.

There are 17 azaleas native to the United States and of those, 15 are natives to our Southeast region. Native azaleas are actually of the genus rhododendron, but are not true rhododendrons. Confusing? Yes, but visually you can tell the difference by the number of stamens in the flower.

Native azaleas typically have five-seven stamens per flower whereas rhododendrons have seven-10. Native azaleas are also deciduous, versus many hybridized azaleas, which are evergreen.

So why plant natives? Many are fragrant and they brighten a shady garden. Some are also a vibrant orange, a hue difficult to find in the garden beyond annuals like zinnias and marigolds.

Native blooms also have very long stamens that arch upward as if to trumpet the arrival of the bloom.

Seemingly the most planted native azalea is flame, a showy combination of yellow and orange blossoms. Other fragrant varieties include R. austrinum, another fiery, orange/red bloom, the blush pink R. canescens, and white blooming R. viscosum, R. atlanticum and R. aborescens.

The variety R. alabamense is a white fragrant bloom with a brush stroke of yellow always on the top petal of the five-petal flower. It makes a beautiful combination with pink stamens reaching out for the sun.

Like hybridized azaleas, natives like well drained, slightly acidic soil. Natives are less likely to tolerate hot sun so tuck them into the shade or at least in a locale that provides partial afternoon shade.

They tend to be more upright, less compact than hybridized varieties, looking more natural in a wooded setting. Plan to plant them where they can stretch their legs, as most varieties grow 5 to 8 feet tall.

If you are interested in taking a peek at natives in bloom before you decide to plant some yourself, check out the garden around the Center for the Environment facility at Catawba College, where a flame azalea is now in full blooming glory.

At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte gardens, native blooms are also abundant right now. Visit the UNC Charlotte Gardens Website    or call (704) 687-2364 for directions. Take a picnic and enjoy what the natives have to offer.

Sherry Walker is an extension Master Gardener volunteer in Rowan County. ;



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