Over the past few years, my garden plantings have expanded around my house into a very young collection. For more color, I began collecting daffodils and irises, with many being pass-along plants. I have bought and planted a few camellias along the way that have grabbed my attention. But nothing compares to my favorite collection — azaleas.
I am not sure why I like azaleas so much, but I blame it on my college days at Auburn University and visits to Callaway Gardens.
In college, I was introduced to so many different types of plants, but immediately loved the subtle spring splash of color of native azaleas and the burst of color of evergreen azaleas.
Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., has all types of azaleas on display and is a must-visit for me each spring. There is just something special about seeing that mass of color blooming every year.
Azaleas have been around for years, but they still may be the most popular flowering shrub in Alabama. If you don’t have one or more growing in your yard, you’re missing out on one of the best spring flowers show ever seen.
With so many new varieties and colors on the market, I know there is at least azalea out there you can fall in love with.
Types of azaleas
Native azaleas are deciduous and can be found naturally growing in forests and along creeks all across the southeastern U.S.
Their honeysuckle-like flowers make them quite unique. The most common ones found in Alabama, naturally or in yards, are the Piedmont Azalea (pink to white), Florida Azalea (yellow to orange), Alabama Azalea (white), and Sweet Azalea (white).
The popular evergreen azaleas we have come to adore as shrubs originated in Asia. Most varieties seen and sold today are hybrids, a result of many years of breeding and selection. The most common azaleas types grown in Alabama are Southern Indica, Kurume, Glen Dale and the Encore series.
The Southern Indica azaleas are large plants and often reach a mature height of 6-10 feet. The flowers are large and showy at 3 inches wide. These azaleas are not as cold-hardy (hardy to Zone 8) as others, so are more popular in the southern half of the state. Common cultivars are ‘George L. Tabor’ (light pink), ‘Mrs. G.G. Gerbing’ (white), ‘Formosa’ (magenta) and ‘Pride of Mobile’ (dark pink).
Kurume azaleas are the most popular group and are the first ones to bloom in the spring. They have very compact growth and lots of small flowers (1/2- to 3/4-inch), but may reach 5-6 feet in height. They are more cold-hardy (to Zone 7) and can be found growing in most of Alabama. Popular cultivars include ‘Coral Bells’ (salmon pink), ‘Hinodegiri’ (vivid red), Hershey Red (bright red) and ‘Snow’ (white).
Glen Dale hybrids grow to be about 4-6 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. These azaleas are very cold-hardy. They can be somewhat hard to find at garden centers and nurseries in Alabama. Two cultivars commonly found for sale are ‘Fashion’ (salmon) and ‘Glacier’ (white).
The Encore series azaleas were released in 1998 and are new to most people. They are best known for blooming twice a year, first in the spring and again in mid- to late summer or fall.
There are currently 25 cultivars on the market, ranging widely in color, shape and size. None are over 5 feet tall.
All cultivar names begin with ‘Autumn’ and are sold in distinctive maroon pots.
Caring for azaleas
Azaleas can be planted any time of year if proper attention is given to providing adequate water. Most people buy azaleas in the spring when the plants are blooming, so they can choose the right color combinations. Fall is probably the best time to plant, however, because the plants can become better established before hot weather.
Azaleas require an acid soil pH (5.5) to grow properly. Pick a place with light to moderate shade. Azaleas receiving some shade during the winter usually suffer less cold damage. Pine trees with moderate filtered shade give ideal protection for azaleas. However, heavy shade throughout the day may reduce the flower production and result in weak growth.
When planting azaleas, remember you will get the most effective display of flowers by planting a mass of a single variety (3 or 5 or 7 plants) instead of using many varieties and color together.
Plant azaleas a few inches higher than you would with other plants, so that the top of the root ball is slightly above ground level. Remember: Plant them high, and they will never die.
Add pine bark or peat moss to the planting hole to improve drainage and lower pH.
Afterwards, be sure to mulch them heavily with pine bark or pine straw.
Additional watering and monitoring will be required in the spring and summer to help them become established and survive.
Shane Harris is an extension agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
• April 21: The first plant sale of the season sponsored by the Calhoun County Master Gardeners/Tree Amigos Program, 8-11 a.m. (or until all plants are sold) at Cane Creek Community Gardens at McClellan. Unusual perennials for sun and shade, trees, and shrubs will be available. The sale benefits the 4H program at the Coosa Valley Attention Home. For more info, contact the Calhoun County Extension System Office, 256-237-1621.