Azaleas practically grow themselves in Georgia’s acidic soil.
Durable shrubs, their vivid colors in spring (and sometimes summer and fall) make azaleas one of the most popular choices for Atlanta landscapes. The fact that we have soils that test acidic (blue litmus paper; blue hydrangeas), a requirement for ericaceous plants like blueberries, mountain laurel, rhododendrons, and azaleas, make these the natural choice for landscapes. Azaleas do so well that our local chapter of the American Rhododendron Society is known as the “Azalea Chapter.” It meets at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell the third Sunday of most months at 2:30 p.m. The Society has scheduled events and field trips during summer so the next meeting at CNC is September 16.
TYPES OF AZALEAS
All azaleas are rhododendrons, although in common usage “rhododendron” mostly refers to plants with large, leathery, evergreen foliage, while azaleas have smaller, thinner leaves. Both need the same conditions to do well.
Asian azaleas are the typical evergreen shrubs available everywhere for as little as $1 and come in shades of hot pink through lavender and white. Kurume hybrids are the familiar solid sheets of color, while Southern Indian hybrids have larger flowers and leaves.
Reblooming azaleas like Encore and other brands have an advantage for the landscape because they bloom 2 – 3 times each year, particularly when planted in some sunshine and fertilized with compost after each bloom cycle.
Native azaleas are both fragrant and deciduous! These are a bit harder to find at the nurseries and come in yellow, orange, and red, along with pink and white. About a dozen species of azaleas are native to Georgia and the Southeast. Although they are often recommended for shady conditions, they bloom more profusely with plenty of sunshine. Did you know? The Callaway Gardens’ logo is a native red, Plumleaf azalea.
Hybrid native azaleas with selected forms and crosses have produced the big-flowered hybrids that have stolen my heart away. I have about five-dozen native azalea hybrids in our home landscape, and we throw parties at the beginning of April just because they are so beautiful! Look for Aromi, Dodd, Transplant Nursery, or Galle hybrid crosses that have outstanding, large, colorful, ruffled, fragrant blooms and can withstand our hot weather.
WHERE TO SITE AZALEAS
As you might expect, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension has great information on azaleas and can answer lots of questions. Visit their publications site, particularly Selecting and Growing Azaleas. Please note:
- Azaleas can be planted any time. Fall planting is easier due to falling temperatures, but spring planting allows you to choose the colors you want while they are flowering.
- Azaleas thrive and will have more flowers in more sun than usually advised (although not total, baking sun). When planted in shade, they have to compete with trees for water.
- Azaleas will die in wet, poorly-drained, or heavy clay soil, so don’t try it.
HOW TO PLANT AZALEAS
A great (and local) website is the Azalea Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. You can check it out at azaleachapter.com. They give detailed info on exactly how to plant an azalea slightly above ground, including a diagram involving a shallow, hula hoop-sized hole filled with ground pine bark.
- Examine the roots before you buy an azalea; they should be fibrous and creamy, filling the pot, but not black, not root bound.
- Make four cuts into the root ball and plant with the bottom flared out in your planting hole so the roots will grow outward.
- The planting hole should be wide and shallow because azalea roots grow near the surface.
- After planting, mulch with organic mulch like pine bark, pine straw, compost, or shredded leaves on the surface but a couple of inches away from the trunk of the shrub.
- Azaleas must be watered-in immediately and then twice a week for 3 – 4 months while establishing.
Don’t miss the Chattahoochee Nature Center Spring Native Plant Sale in Roswell, April 5– 6 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. In Decatur, the Azalea Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society’s Annual Plant Sale is scheduled April 12, 4:30 – 8 p.m. and April 13, 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.