Shrubs Of Merit - Azaleas
And in the woods a fragrance rare
Of wild azaleas fills the air,
And richly tangled overhead
We see their blossoms sweet and red.
~ Dora Read Goodale (Spring Scatters Far and Wide)
Usually among the first hints that spring has sprung is the blooming of azaleas. Naturally for most the United States, this isn’t quite a reality, like it is here in Florida. I once heard someone refer to azaleas as “shrubs of merit.” Well, certainly they deserve a prize for being one of the most beautiful of the flowering shrubs and even if they aren’t quite ready to bloom in your location — it’s time to start thinking about them..
Native to Eastern Asia, North America and Southern Europe, they have been developed in the skillful hands of gardeners. Botanically, azaleas are classed as Rhododendrons, but they are very different than their plant cousins. However, they have so long linked together by commercial growers, that many gardeners assume that they are one and the same.
The real differences are:
- Rhododendrons are evergreen, while azaleas are deciduous
- Azaleas only have five stamens, while rhododendrons have ten or more
- The leaves are completely different and can be instantly told apart if you simply know that rhododendron leaves are large and azalea leaves are small
- Azaleas only reach a height of about 10% of that of rhododendrons who can even be as tall as eighty feet
One thing they both have in common, is the fact that they are among the most beautiful of well-known poisons since ancient times.
It’s a historical and scientific fact that even eating honey made from the flowers can cause nausea, paralysis, and even death.
Successfully growing azaleas requires these basics:
Careful site selection — If you have a north or east sloping area on your property you have the ideal place to place your azaleas. More importantly, azaleas are shade loving shrubs, just remember a little bit of a good thing is great — too much shade also won’t produce thriving azaleas. Do not plant azaleas near maple, elm, or ash trees (or any tree that has shallow roots).
Soil — Azaleas require good drainage. Additionally, azaleas require an acid soil (a soil pH between 5.0 and 5.5 is best).
Mulching — Azaleas do best if you maintain heavy mulching. Oak leaves and pine needles are their preferred meal.
Fertilizers — Don’t use general fertilizers for azaleas. Always fertilize lightly, always begin in May, and never fertilize them after June.
Water — Never over water azaleas.