When most people think of azaleas, they picture the pink, rose, and white evergreen plants. But there are a couple of dozen species of native southeastern azaleas that can hold their own as important additions to the home landscape. The growth habit of native azaleas is not the dense, evergreen one of the Japanese varieties; instead, most native azaleas are deciduous, losing their leaves in autumn to reveal a shapely, elegant form that gives structural interest to the winter landscape.
Photo of plumleaf azalea, courtesy of Sunlight Gardens (sunlightgardens.com)
The flowers of native azaleas are tube- or funnel-shaped (an irresistible invitation for hummingbirds). Their color palette ranges from the snowy white, yellow-throated, Alabama azalea (Rhododendron alabamense) to the shell pink of the Piedmont azalea (R. canescens), and the brilliant orange of the Florida azalea (R. austrinum), one of the southernmost and most heat-tolerant of the natives.
In addition to unique colors, native azaleas grace the landscape with delicious fragrances. Beginning in early April the honeysuckle-sweet Piedmont azalea scents the air. May brings the lemon-scented Alabama azalea with a fragrance so intense that one or two plants are enough to greet you when you step from your car at the end of the day. The cinnamon scent of the smooth azalea (R. arborescens) will perfume the garden in late summer and early fall.
Photo of piedmont azalea, courtesy of Sunlight Gardens (sunlightgardens.com)
Native azaleas are challenging but not difficult plants to grow, provided you give them their favorite growing conditions. Azaleas prefer well-drained soil rich in organic matter. They like their soil to be evenly moist and will not tolerate being planted on a poorly drained site that will leave them with "wet feet". During periods of drought, it is necessary to keep azaleas well watered. Azaleas do not like to compete with tree roots, especially shallow-rooted ones, for water and nutrients. In the wild, azaleas live in acidic soils with a pH between 4.5 to 6.0. It is easy to perform a soil test if you are unsure of the pH of your soil.
Adequate light is necessary for good flower bud development. Full sun for a portion of the day is ideal. Look for an area in your landscape with filtered light or "high shade" (shade from trees with few or no lower limbs) or a spot that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.
Azaleas like company. Good plants to complement their shape and color are dogwoods, red bud trees, ferns, and wildflowers that prefer afternoon shade.
There are about 20 species of azaleas native to the US. Some like cool climates; others prefer the heat and humidity of the Gulf Coast. Check with your local Extension Service, Botanical Garden or Arboretum to find the plants best suited to your area.