Azaleas: Color to cure the coronavirus blues

Submitted to Dorchester Banner/Laetitia Sands
Azaleas blooming in spring will bring joy at the best of times and the not-so-good times.

As we contemplate an uncertain future amid the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is certain and comforting: The spring and summer flowering of one of the most stunning garden shrubs of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions — azaleas.
May may be the best time to see the amazing display of colorful azalea bushes that grace our gardens. But some azaleas will flower later on, in summer, even as late as August. Something definite to anticipate, with pleasure.

I well remember going to Washington D.C. to work and study years ago and being flabbergasted at the gorgeous groupings of scarlet, lavender, pink and white-flowering azaleas blooming in gardens as I bicycled through the leafy streets in spring. Azaleas look particularly lovely under flowering dogwood.
Many of the hybrid azaleas we see in modern-day gardens descended, not from Asian plants, as more than a few ornamentals do, but from native azaleas that grow mostly in the eastern U.S. states. These natives naturally produce blossom in a variety of colors – deep red to orange, yellow, clear pink, lavender and pure white. The colors often occur in combinations within a single flower, in different flowers on the same bush or among different individual plants within the same species of azalea.

In the 1600s, when colonial horticulturalist John Bartram and others were discovering North American fauna and exporting specimens to eager European nobility, “few plants were more prized than our eastern azaleas,” according to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s “Handbook on Rhododendrons and Their Relatives.”
One of the biggest hits was the fragrant, white-flowering swamp azalea, Henry T. Skinner wrote in the Handbook. Another was the Pinxterbloom azalea, followed by the flame azalea. All three inhabit the Chesapeake Bay watershed states and can grow up to 10 feet tall.

Swamp azalea has white flowers from May to August, while Pinxterbloom produces pink, purple and white blossom in April and May. If you want them for your garden, they can be bought from Environmental Concern’s wetland plant nursery, in St. Michaels. But both grow slowly and fall prey to many diseases and insect pests.
The flame azalea produces a wonderful show of large, yellow to orange, red or pastel hued flowers in May or June. “A maturing specimen in full flower has a grace that no…hybrid can probably ever equal,” Skinner wrote.
Our region has at least three other native azaleas, including the dwarf or coast azalea, which grows only a foot to 2-1/2 feet tall, in coastal, sandy soils, and produces very fragrant white and purple-tinged blossom in April and May.

Over time, horticulturalists in Europe hybridized the American natives, producing the Ghent hybrid azaleas, Knaphill hybrids and Exbury hybrids, to name a few. Some are fragrant. Some have double flowers. In general, the hybrids have much larger flowers than their wild ancestors — some almost four inches across — brighter colors and unusual blends and color patterns.
Azaleas, nicknamed bush honeysuckle in some parts of the U.S., are a type of rhododendron and belong to the Heath family (botanical name: Ericaceae), which includes blueberries and wintergreen. Many azaleas are evergreen, although the extent to which they keep their leaves depends on the weather. Al l need acid soil and grow in light shade or full sun; but in hot and/or windy areas, they want shade.

Azaleas are not unique to America, however. They grow all over the world, especially in cool, temperate regions and mountainous parts of the tropics.
In the mid-1900s, improved deciduous azalea hybrids were introduced from England. Some hybrids that lose their leaves in winter have foliage that turns gorgeous shades of yellow, orange or red in fall.
It’s best to plant any azalea in early spring or fall, when there’s no chance of winter damage. Avoid buying burlapped plants in flower. Most important for vigorous growth is acid soil, high in organic content, with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. And purchase azaleas from a reliable local nursery, if possible, preferably one where they’ve been grown. They should know which varieties do best in your area.

Azalea roots grow close to the surface, so a specially prepared bed need not be more than a foot deep. Deep planting will prevent the roots from getting the air they need. And do not cultivate the soil around them because you may damage the roots. Mulch around the plants with two to three inches of leaf mold (oak leaves, for example) or peat moss.
With a rich soil, they’ll probably not need fertilizing for several years. Don’t be tempted any sooner or you’ll get long, weak stems and few flowers. But if an azalea looks sick, use a special rhododendron-azalea-camelia fertilizer dusted on the soil in early spring or fall, after the first frost.

The late horticulturalist Dr. Francis R. Gouin advised that if an azalea loses its leaves, it should be mulched with compost each year in late June or July.
Azaleas hardly ever need pruning. For a maximum display of flowers, dead-head the faded blossom and seed capsules, but take care not to break the buds just underneath, which will produce more flowers if not damaged.
Frugal gardeners can start new plants from softwood cuttings of young growth in early spring or summer, or by ground layering. You can also start azaleas from seed, but it will take four to six years before they flower. And they may not resemble their parents! (The plant, not the gardener.)

So, on your rare trips outside home during this virus crisis, take in the beauty that many azaleas display at this time of year — and some in the months to come. In the meantime, happy gardening!

Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.