Florida Native Azaleas

Piedmont Azalea, Rhododendron canescens. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

By Lilly Anderson-Messec

While growing up in North Florida, I began to recognize the arrival of spring by the boisterous show of white, pink, and fuchsia blooms of azalea shrubs. The house I grew up in had large, mature azalea hedges with a variety of different colors and forms. Every spring, my mom would bring in vases full of them and my dad loved to point out the showy shrubs as we drove through town.

I suppose I assumed these plants were native, but most likely I never gave it a thought. I didn’t differentiate a native plant from a non-native one because I didn’t yet know the importance of native plants as the basis of our functioning ecosystems. I was so surprised when I learned the azaleas I was so familiar with (Rhododendron indicum) are actually transplants from Asia! They are favored by the horticultural industry for their fast, vigorous, and dense growth of evergreen leaves and large, showy blooms. Curiously, I have found the lack of these more obvious qualities to be what lends our native azaleas their unique and understated beauty.

Florida Flame Azalea, Rhododendron austrinum
Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec
Unlike their non-native cousins, which stay leafy and green year round, most of our native azaleas are deciduous. This quality makes for a much more impressive show when the leafless branches erupt in masses of color unhindered by distracting foliage. It is a truly breathtaking sight! I will never forget the first time I saw native Rhododendron in bloom - the graceful bare branches exploding with clouds of deliciously fragrant blooms in a variety of shades was a feast for the senses!

I was feasting upon our earliest native species to bloom; the Piedmont azalea, Rhododendron canescens. Because native azaleas are genetically variable, when grown from seed the individual plants within the same species can vary in the shape, size, and colors of bloom. The Piedmonts are found in shades from almost completely white to deep pink, with endless variations in between. This species is often found in mesic pine flatwoods and along the edges of swamps and creeks in the Panhandle and North Central Florida.

Alabama Azalea, Rhododendron alabamense
Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

The next deciduous species to bloom is much less common, the state-listed Endangered Florida flame azalea, Rhododendron austrinum. It bursts forth in sunny yellows, deep golds, tangerines, and apricot shades. This species is found in mesic hammocks, bluffs and floodplain forests in the Panhandle.

The third of our spring-blooming deciduous species is the Alabama azalea, Rhododendron alabamense. This species blooms at about the same time as R. austrinum, and is also state-listed Endangered, although it is even less common and has a more narrow range - it is limited to four counties in the North Central Panhandle where it is found on streambanks, moist slopes and bluffs. This species is much more consistent in flower form - pristine white with a contrasting yellow blotch on the upper lobe.

Chapman's Rhododendron, Rhododendron chapmanii

The unusual Chapman’s Rhododendron also blooms in spring, but is an outlier in other aspects. Unlike our other species, Rhododendron chapmanii is evergreen, with larger, open-faced blooms. In many aspects, (especially when grown in shadier locations) this species greatly resembles Carolina rhododendron, Rhododendron minus, which is native further north. Chapman’s Rhododendron was once considered a subspecies of R. minus, although most now consider it to be distinct. This species is a very rare Florida endemic, listed as Endangered on both the state and federal level, with only three known populations in existence. Although it resembles the more northern R. minus, its habitat is very different - it grows in full sun in scrubby, pine flatwoods.

Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

Swamp Azalea, Rhododendron viscosum
Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec
We have two summer blooming species of native azalea, Rhododendron serrulatum and R. viscosum var. viscosum. They are both commonly called swamp azalea and are sometimes both lumped into Rhododendron viscosum, although many argue that R. serrulatum is distinct enough in morphology and habitat to warrant its own species. The swamp azaleas bloom in summer after the shrubs have leafed out, and occasionally bloom again in fall. These species have tubular, trumpet-like flowers with elongated corolla tubes that are covered in glandular hairs. They are typically white, but occasionally blushed with pale pink. The swamp azaleas are typically found on moist streambanks, wet pine savannas and swamp edges.

Our native azaleas are wonderful additions to the landscape in North and Central Florida and are found at many native plant nurseries across the state. They can be used to create a natural privacy screen when mixed with native evergreen shrubs and small trees. I often find them growing in similar situations in the wild, and I find this natural look of mixed deciduous and evergreen native shrubs much more attractive than a formal, screen-like hedge of one non-native evergreen azalea. Those types of plantings are about as appealing as a fence, and our wildlife would agree.

Native mixed plantings allow you to appreciate the progression of the seasons as you watch the individual plants flower and change. Most importantly, our native birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife depend on these plants to provide the food and shelter they desperately need as we continue to replace their natural habitat with barren lawns and non-native plants. Our native plants and wildlife have adapted to rely upon each other to meet their specific needs, which non-native plants cannot provide.

Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

Native azaleas are a prime example of this symbiotic relationship. Many of our species bloom early in spring, when few flowers are available. The fragrant, tubular blooms are perfectly timed to welcome home our hungry hummingbirds returning from their winter migration, as well as early emerging butterfly and moth species. In exchange for the nectar-rich meal these flowers provide, the hummingbirds and butterflies pollinate the blooms, allowing the plant to produce seed.

These relationships are what make native plants like our wild azaleas not just special, but necessary. If we want to continue to enjoy wildlife like hummingbirds, then we must begin to see our yards as essential pieces of wildlife habitat. Find a spot in your yard for a native azalea or two, and aim to add more native plants every year.


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