Native Azaleas are essentially "see through" shrubs for most of the year. Loose, open branches and sparse foliage provide little visual impact in the landscape. There is a brief moment each spring, however, when native Azaleas become delicate, dancing fairies. Floating bits of color are suspended right at eye level like butterflies frozen in time. When native Azaleas bloom, they have all the magic of a carefully constructed floral arrangement.
Most native Azaleas are growing as under story in a woodland setting, where they have to survive in dry shade. Some varieties handle the water stress better than others. I have found that the Sweet, Piedmont, Flame, Florida, and Plumleaf species are the most reliable. The others seem to need special nurturing and attention and languish in the dry heavy red clay of a typical Pine woods.
The Swamp Azalea and a few other high-maintenance species can handle slightly wet feet, but they are very tricky to keep alive.
Some of my favorites are listed below:
Sweet (Smooth) Azalea - Rhododendron arborescens - fragrant, 8' tall, white with red stamens, late spring blooming form and summer blooming form
Piedmont (Hoary) (Florida Pinxter) Azalea - Rhododendron canescens - slightly fragrant, 15', light to dark pink, early spring bloom
Flame Azalea - Rhododendron calendulaceum - 10', red to orange to yellow-orange, mid spring bloomer
Oconee Azalea - Rhododendron flammeum (R. speciosum) - 8', mid spring bloom, orange-red to orange
Florida Azalea - Rhododendron austrinum - 10', slightly fragrant, yellow to orange, early spring bloom
Plumleaf Azalea - Rhododendron prunifolium - 15', orange-red, summer bloom
Alabama azalea (Rhododendron alabamense) – 8’, white with a yellow blotch, late April
Propagating Native Azaleas is not as easy as the hybrids. Stem cuttings will not root. Instead, the best way to make new plants is by gathering the tiny seeds from the plant when the pods dry and turn brown. Planting them in a moist seed bed covered with clear plastic and placing them in a shady, mild area will reward you with several seedlings. There is no dormancy period. The flower color of seedlings will vary in intensity and hue. For that reason, I think it is best to try to choose seeds from a plant with blooms that you find especially pleasing. It is possible to layer roots under a very light soil mix for, but only if you're lucky.
Two experts in native azaleas gave me opposing opinions on native azalea culture. Fred Galle of Callaway Gardens said to plant native azaleas in the early spring and immediately chop them back to six to twelve inch stumps to encourage density and vigor. Earnest Koone, III of Lazy K Nursery in Pine Mountain, Georgia, suggested leaving a newly planted native azalea open, tall and loose as they grow in nature. I tried both methods, planting 3 Florida Azaleas and cutting them back, right next to 3 left alone. The three I left alone all died. Hmmm...I have decided that a neglectful gardener that doesn't nurture and water a newly planted Native Azalea and plants it directly in heavy clay soil should go with the crew-cut style of planting. The diligent and attentive gardener who prepares a plant bed high in organic matter and waters carefully should go with the laisse faire method. Either way, a large root ball and a minimum of a two foot deep planting hole filled with water before planting will keep new plants from dying.
Almost all Native Azalea problems are related to poor root action. Leaf drop, dull green foliage, and decline in vigor have their origin in poor root growth. Correct the root situation and fertilize with slow release fertilizers for best results. Native azaleas like to plant themselves at the edge of the woods above a water source. That can be a great hint. Shoot for similar conditions when locating purchased plants. They like a good bit of sunshine, but they like a break from full western sun exposure. They like some moisture, but need enough drainage for their feet to breathe.
Native Azaleas don't shout in the landscape. They whisper to make their presence known. Sometimes an ethereal whisper can be much more intriguing.