Campbell Vaughn: You won’t see azaleas’ beauty, but you can still learn about them

Azaleas are a big deal in Augusta, but this spring dramatized the impact they have on the Garden City. The Masters Tournament is here and I have been asked more questions about azaleas in the past few weeks than I have in my whole life.

 

We had an early spring (or essentially no winter), and every spring regalia was in its full show until the Ides of March. Just as March 15th brought disaster to Julius Caesar, the cold assassinated our precious azaleas. A few blooms actually made it through the cold, giving us just a small piece of what could have been for Augusta’s most important week of the year. What is the story on this ubiquitous ornamental?

Few plants can rival the spectacular floral displays of azaleas. Their vivid colors, profusion of flowers, and adaptability to a wide range of soils and climates make them one of the most popular flowering shrubs in Georgia. Although most people associate azaleas with spring, several bloom in summer and fall. By carefully selecting plants, you can have azaleas blooming at least eight months of the year.

All azaleas are rhododendrons and are also in the same family (Ericaceae) as blueberries and mountain laurel. Rhododendron is commonly used to refer to the group of plants usually with large, leathery, evergreen foliage, while “azalea” refers to those with smaller, rougher leaves. In Augusta, azaleas thrive, while we have a difficult time growing the traditional leather-leaf rhododendron because of our heat.

The Royal Horticultural Society in London maintains an International Rhododendron Registry that lists over 800 species and several hundred named cultivars. To be registered, a cultivar must have a unique name and unique characteristics that set it apart from others. Some hybridizers in the United States register their new cultivars with the Rhododendron Society of America.

Azaleas are grouped into categories based on a number of plant characteristics, including whether they are evergreen or deciduous and whether they are a native plant species or an introduced cultivar. Evergreen azaleas are described according to flower form, petal shape, variation in petal colors, bloom season and growth habit. Many hybrid evergreen cultivars are grouped according to the name of the plant breeder who introduced them or the location where they were developed. Most evergreen azaleas originated in Japan, but some came from China, Korea or Taiwan. Several deciduous azaleas are native to North America; others originated in Eastern Europe, Japan, China and Korea, while a few others are hybrids.

The type of azalea most commonly associated with the Augusta area is the Indica azalea. Indica azaleas are native to Japan and first arrived in the South via Charleston. These azaleas and will grow 8 to 12 feet tall and wide with an awesome display of red, pink, white, purple, and salmon blooms. One of the largest and oldest collections flourishes at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston, where 15 varieties of Indica azaleas previously thought to be extinct are being propagated to be shared with other preservation-minded gardens across the nation.

Several species of deciduous azaleas are native to Georgia and the Southeast. Their flower color ranges from white to pink, yellow, orange, scarlet or crimson, with several shades in between. Plant size is also variable, ranging from 3 feet to more than 20 feet.

If you have trouble finding a badge to see the Masters and Augusta’s best display of spring-blooming azaleas, try visiting Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston or even Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga. Callaway Gardens has one of the world’s largest displays (over 20,000) of native and cultivated azaleas.

Reach Campbell Vaughn, the agriculture and natural resources cooperative extension agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing augusta@uga.edu.

 

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