As another well-anticipated spring arrives, one will notice almost daily, multiple species of plants beginning to bloom and showcase their beauty. Gardeners and plant enthusiasts anxiously await the spring display of flowering cherries, evergreen azaleas and dogwoods, as well as colorful bedding plants. 

But unless you walk off the beaten path, you might not notice some of the most prized plants and spring flowers. Our native or deciduous azaleas bloom throughout the spring and present a spectacular flower show like none other. Once you experience them, you will fall in love with these enchanting native plants.    

Unlike the more popular evergreen azaleas and common plants blooming in yards and landscapes, native azaleas are a little more secretive and mysterious. They are typically found growing in undisturbed natural areas, commonly in forests and along creeks all across the Southeast. For the ones found in this area, this usually means they are along hillsides and steeper terrain, as well as along streams, but occasionally where you least expect to see them. Native azaleas go nearly unnoticed year round and blend in with their natural surroundings until they bloom in the spring. That is when their beauty is discovered, and they become a spectacular spring highlight. 

Not all azaleas are created equal. Our native azaleas are deciduous plants and are native to America. They are often referred to as “deciduous azaleas” or “American azaleas” and mistakenly labeled as “wild honeysuckle;” however, most known and popular landscape azaleas are evergreen and actually originate from Asia. Both are in the large rhododendron family but are very botanically different. Native azaleas have the form of a small upright tree rather than a rounded mounding shrub of evergreen azaleas. 

The honeysuckle-like flowers of native azaleas are what gets all the attention and makes them quite unique. They produce funnel-shaped flowers ranging in colors of pink, white, orange, yellow and red, all depending on species. Some even have flowers with delightful fragrance.

The true beauty of native azaleas is to find and see them growing out in the wild. But thanks to modern horticulture techniques and plant nurseries, you don’t have to walk deep into the forest or up along a steep hill to enjoy their beauty. Many varieties have been propagated successfully and are sold at various plant nurseries. You can buy native azaleas and incorporate them into your home landscape for your own personal enjoyment.  

There remains a growing trend and interest in incorporating native plants and natural areas into residential landscape plans. Many homeowners prefer to have a natural woodland landscape rather than formal gardens and manicured lawns. This presents opportunities to add beloved native azaleas to gardens. 

When planting native azaleas, be sure to give them justice by placing them in natural areas away from the house where they physically look like they belong. Native azaleas prefer cool, partially shaded sites with rich, moist woodland soil. A site with morning sun and afternoon shade is best. Note that deep shade will drastically limit their number of flowers. They can be used in combinations with other plants, such as evergreen azalea and dogwoods, for fantastic flower shows.  

One reason native azaleas are so popular is there are so many different kinds to choose from. And they do not bloom all at once. Depending on the species, native azaleas bloom from early spring to mid-summer. The following are the most popular varieties of native azaleas arranged by bloom order for East Central Alabama:  

Piedmont Azalea 

(Rhododendron canescens) is the first one to bloom in the spring. It has fragrant white to light pink to dark pink flowers and grows up to 15 feet tall. It blooms in late March to early April and is the most common one found growing wild in the Southeastern states. 

Florida Azalea 

(Rhododendron austrinum) is native to North Florida. It has fragrant yellow to gold to orange flowers and grows up to 10 feet tall. It blooms in early April. 

Oconee Azalea 

(Rhododendron flammeum) is native to Georgia and South Carolina. It has non-fragrant orange to red flowers and grows up to 6 feet tall. It blooms in early to mid-April.

Alabama Azalea 

(Rhododendron alabamense), isfound in northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia, and has snow white flowers with yellow blotches and a lemon fragrance. It grows up to 6 to 8 feet tall and typically blooms in April.

Pinxterbloom Azalea 

(Rhododendron periclymenoides) is native to north Alabama up to New England. It has fragrant white, pink or violet flowers and grows up to 6 feet tall. It blooms in April.

Swamp Azalea 

(Rhododendron viscosum) has fragrant white flowers. It grows up to 5 feet tall and blooms in May to June.

Flame Azalea 

(Rhododendron calendulaceum) is non-fragrant and has large yellow, orange or red flowers. It grows up to 15 feet tall and blooms in late May to June.

Sweet Azalea 

(Rhododendron arborescens) is native to the Appalachian Mountains and foothills and has very fragrant white flowers. Common near streams, it can get up to 10 feet tall and blooms in late May to June.

Plumleaf Azalea

(Rhododendron prunifolium) is known as the one found at and growing only within 100 miles of Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia. It has non-fragrant orange to red flowers and grows up to 20 feet tall. It is a summer feature and blooms from early July to August. 

~ Shane Harris is the Tallapoosa County Extension Coordinator for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Contact him at 256-825-1050 or visit aces.edu/Tallapoosa.