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Native azaleas are a great addition to the landscape

Posted: April 7, 2012 - 11:15pm

Everyone had wondered this spring whether the azaleas would be in bloom during Masters Week. We want the azaleas to be at their peak when the tournament comes to town.

Unfortunately, most azaleas reached the peak of bloom a week or two before the Masters, but there are still varieties that are in full bloom. In fact, there is another species of azaleas that are blooming now: native azaleas.

Native azaleas are one of the South’s more beautiful flowering shrubs, yet as a group native azaleas are greatly underused in the Southern landscape. They have clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers that begin their colorful display in early spring. Several species have fragrant flowers and can be found in colors from white, pink, orange to red. Some have unusual yellow to orange and orange-red flowers, such as the Florida Flame azalea or the pink, fragrant, delicate flowers of the Piedmont azalea.

The sweet-smelling blooms have led to the common name, wild honeysuckle bush. Identification of native azaleas can be difficult because of the similarities between species. Natural hybridization has complicated the matter by producing many intermediate forms with unusual flower colors. Also, plant breeders have made many hybrids of these species.

One characteristic of the native azalea is that it is deciduous. These plants will lose their leaves in the fall. This makes it difficult to find them in the winter. Many native azaleas are lost because they are not marked. One reason to mark the azaleas is if they are to be moved or transplanted. However, native azaleas are difficult to transplant. It is possible to move them during fall and winter. The roots are delicate and should be handled very carefully.

When considering planting native azaleas, it is best to use container-grown shrubs and leave the native azaleas where they are growing. Container-grown shrubs can be planted any time of year. Plant these shrubs in partial shade or full sun as long as they can get afternoon shade. These azaleas will need to be watered more when grown in full sun, and they will need extra water during dry conditions.

Native azaleas do not have any major pest problems. If pruning dead or unruly branches is necessary, do so after azaleas bloom in the spring, the same time that the other azaleas are pruned.

Deciduous azaleas grow best in soil conditions similar to other azaleas. They prefer moist, sandy, but well-drained soils. If the soil is not well drained, consider planting on a raised bed. They like a soil pH in the low 5s. One of the problems that they can have is iron deficiency. Iron is tied up in the soil and is unavailable to the plant when the pH is raised to higher than 6.

When fertilizers are applied, remember that azaleas are shallow-rooted plants. The root system easily can be damaged by excessive fertilizer applications. The proper way to fertilize is to evenly spread the fertilizer around the root system. Start broadcasting the fertilizer 4 to 6 inches away from the center of the plant. The fertilizer can be broadcast over the top of the plant, but should be knocked or washed off the leaves. The plant needs to be dry before applying the fertilizer, or the fertilizer can burn the leaves. Next, add a mulch to help protect the shallow root system. The mulch will aid in holding more moisture and protecting the root system. These plants need 3 to 4 inches of mulch. The mulch should stop about an inch from the trunk of the plants to help keep the trunk of the plant drier and healthier. The mulch doesn’t need to be removed to fertilize. As the fertilizer dissolves, it will move through the mulch.

Charles Phillips is a retired Columbia County Extension Service agent and operates Hort Consulting. He can be reached at cphillipshort@comcast.net, or at (706) 836-2152.

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