Native azaleas

Probably what most people think of when they hear "azalea" is the common sun-loving landscape shrub of front yards everywhere. But lurking in the woods is the similarly ephemeral and far more fragrant native azalea, probably seen most often as clouds of pink and yellow at waist and head height in forests and along shrubby roadside areas in the early spring.

There are 15 species of native azalea in the East, distributed from Florida to Canada; a number of these are found in extremely limited ranges and are considered threatened or endangered.

Native azaleas are classified by flower color and can be lumped into three categories: white, pink and orange, nearly all of which emerge before the foliage in spring. Amateur botanists may have trouble with exact identification of a particular specimen, as native azaleas with overlapping ranges freely hybridize and forms can vary widely from region to region.

The two most commonly occurring species of native azalea in our area are frequently confused with one another, owing to their similar color, habitat and ranges. Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) and Pinxterbloom azalea (R. periclymenoides) are both found growing in moist, shaded sites throughout our forests. The differences between them lie mainly in the presence or absence of sticky hairs near the base of the flower tube. Both species aredeciduous.

In the home setting, native azaleas thrive in moist, shaded areas with morning sun. Because of their loose, open growth habit, they are an excellent choice for areas intended to appear naturalized, where their large, honeysuckle-like flowers seem to glow and their unmistakable fragrance add a unique element in the woodland setting. Many wild visitors seek out the flowers' nectar, including swallowtail butterflies and ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Michelle Donahue, Frederick County's big tree program volunteer, submitted this article.

Nature Notes for 6/10/2012