When I was a child, we would make a point of going out to see the Azaleas each April. When I was very little, we visited the Duke gardens. Later, living in Richmond, we visited the Joseph Bryan Park, planted in 1952 with thousands of Azaleas.
Sometimes we would visit the Norfolk Botanical Gardens for the NATO Azalea Festival to see their breathtaking displays of flower covered shrubs.
Better than Christmas lights, Azalea gardens draw millions of visitors to wander the shady lanes amid vibrant blossoms in every shade of pink, salmon, red, purple, lilac, white, and even native varieties blooming in yellows and orange.
Huge bumblebees move lazily from blossom to blossom, drunk on nectar, and completely harmless to those visitors who keep a respectful distance.
Birds swoop from branch to branch, tree to tree, enjoying the spectacle and fragrance of the flowers as they feast on the many nectar loving insects buzzing around them.
North America has its own native Rhododendron species, many of which have been hybridized. But the most commonly planted Azaleas in the Southeastern United States are actually hybrids of Asian species.
The first of these Asian species were imported through Charleston, SC, in the mid-Nineteenth century, from Japan.
Originally planted at The Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, near Charleston, hybrids of these original imported selections have spread throughout our region.
Known as the “Indica Hybrids,” these impressive shrubs may grow to 10′-12′ tall and wide when growing in moist, rich soil in partial sun.
Azaleas species and cultivars, members of the sprawling Rhododendron genus, prefer the acidic soil found in the shade of pine and oak trees.
An understory shrub, they brighten the landscape for several weeks each spring with their bright flowers.
Extremely popular in home gardens, most Azaleas in the nursery trade are evergreen. Our native species are deciduous, and so not so popular in residential gardens.
Azaleas, once properly planted, practically take care of themselves. Although many people prune them to keep them in bounds as a foundation planting, they are happiest when left alone to grow into their full potential.
They grow best when mulched with pine needles or with bark, and don’t need fertilizer so long as the soil is rich. The mulch is important in our southern summers, because Azaleas prefer moist soil and are very shallow rooted.
Azaleas are abundant and affordable at garden centers and big-box stores each spring. Often times available for only $2-$3 per gallon sized pot, they are a great value because they grow quickly with decent care.
Plant new Azalea shrubs a little “high.” That is, dig the whole wider than the root ball by several inches, but no deeper. Amend the planting hole with good compost and set the root ball so it is perhaps an inch higher than the surrounding soil.
Gently pull the roots on the surface of the side of the root ball out from the mass, and gently break up the roots at the bottom of the root ball to encourage their growth out into the surrounding soil.
This is very important. If you plant the azalea without pulling the surface roots away from the ball, they may continue to grow in the shape of the pot, eventually “girdling” or choking the plant. Unless the roots grow out into the surrounding garden soil, they may not be able to absorb adequate moisture and the plant will fail to thrive.
( How do I know this? From digging up dying newly planted Azaleas in mid-summer and finding their roots never grew out away from the original rootball.)
Place the Azalea into the planting hole, backfill with compost mixed with the native soil. Then mound more compost and soil to make a small rounded “hill” around the root ball, bringing the new soil flush with the top of the roots. Finally, mulch with at least 2″ of pine straw or bark mulch.
Water each bush in well, so the roots are saturated. Continue to water new Azaleas every 3-4 days for the next several months.
They appreciate moist soil, and need help until the roots grow and the plant is established.
Most people buy their Azaleas in April or May, when they are in bloom; which is absolutely the worst time of year to plant for the health of the shrub.
The best time to plant in Coastal Virginia would be October or November, if you are able to find the cultivars you wish to plant.
There are so many choices of cultivar. Although I love the huge flowers and great stature of the Indica Hybrids, there are many beautiful shrubs with smaller flowers which stay under 4′ high at maturity.
Newer hybrids, called “Encore Azaleas,” promise two or more seasons of bloom each year.
I filled a garden with Azaleas a few years ago. Fenced, shaded by mature trees, the Azaleas grew rapidly and re-created the Norfolk Botanical gardens, in miniature, in my yard.
I loved the winding pine straw covered paths between walls of color each spring.
This garden was once heavily planted in Azaleas. The stubs remain, trying valiantly to hang onto life. As areas around our neighborhood are developed, and the forests cut, the deer have to find somewhere to go.
And they come here. And eat. And eat. Azaleas are a deer delicacy. We have blooming Azaleas, but the shrubs are misshapen and top heavy.
Our neighbor started many Azaleas from cuttings taken in Norfolk years and years ago. Her huge beautiful shrubs fill the front garden. It remains a mystery why the deer have allowed that to happen in her garden, but not in ours….
In another week or so the flowers will fade and fall for another year. Fresh green leaves will continue to grow, clothing the shrubs in bright green for another season.
As the Azaleas fade, the larger Rhododendron shrubs, with their still larger flowers in shades of purple, pink, and white will unfold, extending the color for an additional few weeks.
Azaleas form the backdrop to many happy memories for those of us who grew up in this region of the United States.
Family trips to the park, family picnics among the Azaleas, beautiful yards around our homes, Azalea Festivals and parades have all enlivened our springtime celebrations across the years. These easy to grow shrubs continue to bring beauty and joy to those who grow them.
Photos by Woodland Gnome