What I Now Know About Azaleas

| Native Plant Selection, Native Plant Spotlight, non-natives, Suzy Nicksic

My introduction to azaleas was when I was a little girl, when my grandma would watch The Masters just to see the azaleas. Every year, she would point and say, “Look, look!,” as a player would post for a shot in front of the colorful blooms. Because of this, azaleas became a staple in my landscape designs. As my interest in native plants grew, I spied the “southern” azalea at my favorite nursery in Chicago. The leaves were bigger and longer than the small glossy leafed ones I was familiar with and became my native substitute. Imagine my surprise to see these long-leafed azaleas planted all over my new front yard in Atlanta!

Now imagine my surprise when I found out the “southern” azalea – aka Piedmont azalea – is deciduous and mine are evergreen! Come to find out, they’re from east Asia and were brought to Georgia from Europe, then hybridized, collected, and planted all over the state. Rarely do I see a yard that doesn’t have them.

Turning my yard into a native Piedmont forest is my new focus and replacing the Asian with the Piedmont varieties was the first step. I also added:

Big leaf magnolia, Itea, beautyberry, hoptree, Viburnum obavatum, Euonymous americana, loblolly bay, annabelle and oakleaf hydrangeas, and yaupon holly are planted in the dappled shade. Native columbine and anemone are also sprinkled around. In the sunny, dry area by the walkway, various native perennials are mixed with shrubby St. John’s wort and dwarf yaupon holly. The sunny, moist bed along the street hosts native perennials and my new favorite, the white fringetree.

My next conquest is removing this mess of azaleas and Asian holly next to the house. I do like the evergreen privacy so this is what I’m planning:

Leave the redbud in place, flank it with Piedmont azaleas and add a few native evergreen dwarf Viburnum obovatum. Then mountain dog hobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) on the back side because it’s shady and moist, and a few more shrubby St. John’s wort in the front since it blooms at the beginning of summer and attracts bees like crazy.

Before I knew better, I moved some of azaleas out of the yard area and planted them along the curve of the cul-de-sac. Less than a year ago I added Viburnum obovatum ‘Christmas Snow’, Heart’s a Bustin’ (Euonymus americanus), a variegated Piedmont azalea and the loblolly bay in front of them. As they grow they’ll provide ample screening from the street and I can remove the azaleas without giving up blooms.

People sometimes keep plants because they remind them of someone special. The Siberian iris in my backyard reminds me of my mom. And, I’ll have one non-native azalea for my Grandma.