The Plant Native

Azalea

Highlights

Native azaleas are extraordinary sights when they bloom, in part because they have minimal leaves when flowering. Eighteen species of azalea are native to North America, each with flowers that range from white, pink, yellow, or orange. They are not just for the spring: their leaves turn fiery colors in the fall before dropping off. If you live anywhere in the eastern US from Pennsylvania to Florida, you can happily plant these beautiful shrubs. Scroll on to meet some favorites.

Part Sun – Shade
5-12′ tall, depending on species
Blooms in spring
Rhododendron genus
Garden goals...right?

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native azaleas

Table of Contents

Azaleas cover themselves with hundreds of five-petaled flowers in the spring. Each of these flowers is also sometimes speckled with tiny freckles, with five long pollen “eyelashes” (called stamens) emerging from the center. This shrub (or bush? whatever your naming preference) is a pollinator’s dream.

What is the difference between native vs. non-native azaleas?

There are thousands of azaleas worldwide; the majority come from Asia. There are eighteen azalea species native to North America.

Here are the general differences between non-native and native azaleas:

A native Piedmont Azalea begins its blooms

Native Azaleas

  • Lose leaves in winter (deciduous)
  • Five petals, long, eyelash-y stamens
  • Flowers smell fantastic!
  • More airy, open shape
  • Require minimal care: happy with rain when established, thrive in Southern climates
A non-native azalea (Rhododendron simsii)

Non-Native Azaleas

  • Most are evergreen
  • Five petals, short stamens
  • Flowers have no smell
  • Dense, mounded shape
  • Can require special care: fertilizing, pruning, watching out for root rot and other diseases

And now you’re probably wondering if the azaleas in your yard or nearby are native—right?

Sad news: most of the azaleas planted in American landscapes are non-native

This bummed us out when we realized it.

Drive around along the Mid-Atlantic or South in the spring, and you’ll see a riot of azalea shrubs in bloom. Sadly—very few of the azaleas in American landscapes are native species.

American landscaping trends have favored evergreen, non-native azaleas since the 1800s, which is why the bulk of azaleas in our landscapes are non-native.

Even iconic southern azalea gardens are mostly non-native

If you’ve been to any well-known azalea gardens or festivals in the south—Summerville, South Carolina’s Azalea Park, Flowerfest, and the Magnolia Plantation—we have some sad news. The vast majority of azaleas planted in southern parks and gardens are non-native.

And now you’re probably asking…

A Flame Azalea can carry an entire garden solo, thanks to its incredible blooms

Why plant a native azalea?

Besides all the reasons mentioned earlier—fragrant flowers and iconic blooms—there are many reasons to plant native azaleas and native plants in general. Here are three benefits of planting native azaleas:

  1. Without native plants, iconic animals like Monarch butterflies and songbirds won’t have the food or homes needed to survive
  2. Native plants save time and money: after the first year of getting established, native plants are happy with rain
  3. Native plants are gorgeous! Azaleas are a perfect example of how beautiful and resilient native plants are—they are always the best choice for our gardens.

Now, let’s meet some azaleas native to North America. We organize by color, below.

Types of native azaleas

Native azalea flowers run from white to pink to yellow. Here are some different native azaleas found at local nurseries.

Alabama azalea

Rhododendron alabamense

Alabama Azaleas offer a classic white flower with delicate yellow radiating from its center. The flowers also have a lovely lemony fragrance. It is perhaps the most black-tie of the native Azalea bunch.

Flame azalea

Rhododendron calendulaceum

The name tells you the color before you ever see it. Warm glowing flowers come in the spring. Native Flame Azaleas can come in a range of warm colors, making them known as “one of the most spectacular native shrubs of the Appalachian Mountains.” Flame Azaleas grow to 6-12 feet tall and like part shade to shade.

Florida Flame azalea

Rhododendron austrinum

A little more buttery than its ‘flame’ cousin, the Florida flame azalea is easy to find in nurseries, particularly in the south. Florida Flame blossoms also have a sweet smell, which no doubt helps make them a favorite of pollinators and homeowners. It flowers a little later than Piedmonts. Plant a few Piedmonts next to Florida Flames for a truly spectacular spring. Florida Flame Azaleas grow to 5-12 feet tall and like a wide run of light: sun to shade.

Piedmont azalea

Rhododendron canescens

Piedmont azaleas are the most common native azalea in the South; they can handle hot southern summers and even sunny garden placement. They grow natively from Tennessee south to central Florida, and all the way west to Texas. In the south, they flower in March (sometimes flowers come before the leaves!) In northern climates, expect flowers in May.

Swamp azalea

Rhododendron viscosum

Swamp Azaleas—what a terrible name for a beautiful plant! Similar to Alabama Azaleas, Swamp Azaleas have beautiful white flowers. They have a huge native range: look for them on stream banks from Maine to Georgia and west to Texas.

Sweet azalea

Rhododendron Arborescens

Sweet Azaleas have delicate white to pale yellow flowers and long red stamens (which look almost like eyelashes). They also smell amazing. Leaves turn a bright reddish-orange before they drop in the fall. Sweet Azaleas like part shade to shade and grow up to 9-20 feet tall.

A rhododendron looks very similar to azaleas

Azalea vs. Rhododendrons — what's the difference?

Both shrubs flower. Both plants are in the Rhododendron genus. But to keep it super simple (and not go too plant nerd):

  • Azaleas lose their leaves in the winter (deciduous
  • Rhododendrons are evergreen (keep their leaves year-round)

How do you grow native azaleas?

During the first year of planting an azalea, it’s essential to ensure the roots get consistent water. This will help the plant stay healthy and come back with blooms for years to come. This first year is like freshman year for plants. In gardening, it’s called “getting established.”

Planting azaleas in the fall

Fall is the ideal time to plant azaleas because they will spend all their energy on roots, and not on making flowers or leaves. Oftentimes, local nurseries offer sales in the fall to help clean out stock and prepare for spring. This is a great time to find native azaleas affordably and plant them during an ideal time for their growth and health. Azaleas planted in the fall will bloom in the spring.

Planting azaleas in the winter and spring

When you plant azaleas in the winter or spring, make sure to give them extra water during dry periods. The roots in particular need consistent water during the first year, especially for good flowering. A good rule of thumb is “moist but not soggy.” If you see water pooled around the azalea, hold back on watering.

Planting azaleas in the summer

It is even more crucial to give azaleas planted in the summer consistent water. The first year planted, the roots will need watering whenever there is a dry period. This will help them develop strong roots, even during hot periods. After the first year, azaleas should be fine with just rain.

Flame Azaleas and Florida Flame Azaleas putting on a show

Where should I plant native azaleas?

Azaleas are naturally found in forests beneath trees (the above picture is a perfect example.) They enjoy the sun in the spring and flower before the leaves grow and put them in persistent shade.

In our yards, they like a little bit of protection from the sun. They especially thrive:

  • Up against houses or buildings
  • As a hedgerow for driveways or property lines
  • In front walkways, underneath statement trees (as seen below)

Light for native azaleas

Different species of azalea like different types of sun:

  • Flame Azaleas like part shade to shade
  • Florida Flame Azaleas like sun to shade (super wide range!)
  • Piedmont Azaleas like sun to part shade
  • Swamp Azaleas like sun to part shade
  • Sweet Azaleas like part shade to shade
One of the coolest things about native azaleas is that they flower *before* the leaves fill out

What happens if I plant an azalea in the wrong spot?

Don’t worry if you plant an azalea in the wrong spot; just move it to a better place. In deep shady areas, azaleas will become scraggly and not flower as much as when they are in dappled sun. Or, sometimes an azalea’s leaves will brown, showing it’s getting too much sun. If this happens—don’t worry! It’s so easy to fix a gardening mistake! Just get out a shovel, make a wide hole around the root ball, and move the azalea to a better spot. Every gardener moves plants around. If you’re worried about making a planting mistake, read this pep talk on how to recover quickly.

Do azaleas need pruning?

Unless you are looking for a more manicured shape, there is no need to prune native azaleas. According to Gil Nelson’s Best Native Plants for Southern Gardens, “Allowing plants to assume their natural form ensures more profuse flowering, a more charming habit, and a more naturalistic garden.”

What pairs well with native azaleas?

There are so many native plants that look great and plant nicely with native azaleas. Here are some stellar combinations for your garden.

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Golden Alexander

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower

Mountain Laurel

redbud-tree-in-bloom-native-tree

Redbud

rosebay-rhododendron-native-shrub-flowering

Rhododendron

A white Sweetbay Magnolia flower blooming, photographed growing on a branch of the Sweetbay Magnolia tree.

Sweetbay Magnolia

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Sweetshrub

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Tulip Poplar

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Winterberry

Let’s all plant native azaleas

Native azaleas are a beautiful and easy-to-care-for addition to any garden. Their stunning flowers (that often smell amazing) are accompanied by leaves that turn vibrant colors in the fall. Native azaleas are perennials, meaning they will come back year after year looking better and better. Plant one (or a few!) native azaleas and enjoy years of blooms. Happy planting!

UPDATED —
04/14/2024
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