When it comes to competitive gardening, there’s nothing sweeter than horticultural one-upmanship. (Admit it. You’d rather get poison ivy than see your neighbor’s lawn look better than yours.) So whether you’re renovating or repairing an existing landscape, or simply want to add a mesmerizingly beautiful, as well as historically appropriate, specimen to your already perfect Lowcountry garden, here’s what you need: American azaleas.
Sometimes referred to as wild or native azaleas, 15 of these Rhododendron species hail from North America, seven of which are indigenous to South Carolina. Even if you can’t curb your addiction to Charleston’s ubiquitous springtime evergreen shrub, the dayglow purple ‘Formosa’ Southern Indica azalea, it’s time to turn over a new leaf and explore the possibility of welcoming one of our deciduous natives into your garden.
And before you turn your nose up at a woody ornamental that turns into a bundle of bare twigs in winter, consider this: Unlike its evergreen cousins, American azalea blossoms don’t fade into shaggy, brown remnants that take forever to disappear. Instead, the shrub promptly sheds its spent flowers. As a result, the overall attractiveness of your springtime garden is extended by a few more weeks.
For gardeners who relish brilliant fluorescence, but have grown weary of Formosamagenta hues, flame azalea (R. calendulaceum) displays extraordinary vibrancy. While on a plant-hunting expedition through the Southeastern woodlands in 1791, naturalist William Bartram’s reaction to flame azalea was one of amazement:
[T]he appearance of its flowers, which are in general of the color of the finest red, orange, and bright gold, as well as yellow and cream color … cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hill sides, that suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hill being set on fire.
Azalea enthusiast and executive director of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens Tom Johnson proudly points out that, “Native azaleas are what America offered to the world.” Once the European aristocracy learned of Bartram’s esteem for American azaleas, they clamored for every species that came from across the pond. Meanwhile, back in the colonies, we began taking them for granted and moved on to other kinds of flora.
However, Johnson, who remains a hands-on horticulturalist in spite of overseeing America’s oldest public garden, is determined to redirect our attention back to our botanical heritage. His goal is to create the “greatest collection of wild azaleas in South Carolina,” and he’s not just talking about a few hundred bushes, but many thousands.
Although Magnolia’s 1-acre native azalea garden, which was designed by horticulturalist and American azalea expert Ernest Koone III, is now mature enough to put on a magnificent display of color every spring, the surrounding forests are also dotted with these wild beauties. Several thousand more are currently being planted along the Nature Train road, and Johnson is aiming to put in an additional 5,000 plants in the next couple of years.
With a little planning, proper placement and a dose of patience, Johnson insists that American azaleas will add dazzle to any garden because their unexpected, colorful blooms add surprise to an otherwise pedestrian swath of conventional azaleas. However, natives are not as easy to use as evergreen varieties. “They are like sticks in the wind when they are young, although they grow to 6 or 8 feet tall in about four or five years,” he says. The secret is to incorporate them with their evergreen counterparts. Johnson says, “Be sure to use them as a specimen toward the back, because wild azaleas look fuller as a backdrop.” But another reason for blending is that “by July they begin to look a little rough.”
Another argument for including this deciduous shrub in your landscape is that, unlike evergreen azalea blossoms that have little to no scent, most native plants are deliciously fragrant. Johnson’s favorite, Alabama azalea (R. alabamense), is not only noted for its clusters of white flowers and its tendency to be slightly more compact than other wild azaleas, but it is probably the most aromatic.
Throughout the mid-1930s to late-1960s, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens operated a retail mail order enterprise, offering plantation-grown camellia and azalea cuttings nationwide. Although no longer in that business, each spring, around the time the wild azalea garden begins to bloom, Johnson rounds up a truckload of native Rhododendrons from various Southeastern nurseries and offers them for sale to the public. Once you see and smell these shrubs in their springtime splendor, you’ll understand why plantsmen like Johnson and Koone are determined to spread the word about them to home gardeners.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, founded in 1676, is America’s only remaining large-scale Romantic garden. Magnoliaplantation.com.
Many thanks to Tom Johnson and Ernest Koone III of Lazy K Nursery (lazyknursery.com) for sharing their horticultural knowledge and their contagious enthusiasm for American azaleas.
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.