Popular azaleas signal springtime in our Southern gardens

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

What’s the most popular landscape shrub in the south? Azaleas, of course. In 1848 the first southern Indian azaleas, or indicas were planted at Magnolia Gardens near Charleston, South Carolina. Soon the azalea craze spread throughout the south.

Colorful azaleas are synonymous with springtime in the south. Evergreen azaleas are prized for their vivid splash of color in the spring along with attractive foliage and excellent plant form all year.

Deciduous azaleas including native species have a more airy formation that is especially accentuated in the winter landscape.

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Botanically speaking, azaleas are members of the Heath family which dates back to the Cretaceous period, 70 million years ago. Carl Linneaus, the &uot;Father of Taxonomy&uot; was the first to recognize the genus Rhododendron in his Species Plantarum in 1753. He created a separate genus named Azalea that included six species. Since that time both have been grouped into only one genus, Rhododendron.

A wide variety of azaleas are available for southern gardeners ranging in size and color. Dwarf sized shrubs to large growing plants with colorful flowers ranging from white, yellow, orange, scarlet, crimson, purple and fuschia make finding the ‘right’ one exciting.

When looking for a particular size or shade, now’s the time to begin observing full grown specimens in the Miss-Lou along with the many varieties available at local nurseries.

Early, mid and late season bloomers make it possible to select several varieties or cultivars so that one can have plants in bloom for up to two months or more.

Azaleas are equally useful and lovely in a naturalistic setting, formal landscape, or contemporary design. Trimming evergreen azaleas into hedges is easy to do as long as the plants haven’t set the next seasons buds. After blooming and until mid July is the ideal time for heavy pruning although selective trimming can be done year round.

A specimen plant that is trained into an unusual form is another way to add interest to the garden with azaleas. Imagine a large white cultivar such as ‘Mrs. G. G. Gerbing’ trimmed in the shape of a cloud. Although attractive throughout the year, a huge cloud of white flowers would certainly be a spectacular sight in springtime. Considered high maintenance, sculpturing a plant takes dedication and patience but surely working with such a prized specimen would be considered a labor of love.

Training an azalea into a tree form is another possibility and especially easy with deciduous varieties. Evergreen azaleas trimmed into standards are very popular, especially in the formal landscape.

During peak azalea season these are often available in area nurseries where you can usually talk to a professional willing to give free advice on how to keep it trimmed properly.

Using evergreen azaleas as a screen planting is another great way to plant this tough garden shrub. Southern Indian varieties such as ‘Pride of Mobile’ or ‘George Lindley Taber’ are excellent for this use. When planting azaleas for a screen or as a hedges, a spacing that is closer than normal is a good idea so that the plants grow close together faster.

Planting in mass creates a dramatic effect in the landscape. Dwarf varieties in the front and working towards the back or center of the bed where the tallest plants are placed will provide an abundant flower show of springtime color.

Creating a special effect by planting azaleas near water is incredibly beautiful, especially when a reflection of the plant can be seen. Ideally a gentle slope upwards from a pond or water garden is the best situation for this type of planting. Always be sure that the plants will have adequate drainage.

Last but not least, fertilize azaleas after flowering.

Gardening Miss-Lou Style by

Traci Maier

is a weekly column. Contact her by e-mail at ratmaier.bellsouth.net.