The sound of leaves crackling beneath my shoes filled the woods as I tried in vain to slip quietly into the creek bottom. I paused to listen for a distant gobble as I squeaked out another amateur hen yelp from a mouth call. Greeted with only silence, it was clear that the afternoon would be better spent searching for something other than a wild turkey. I suddenly noticed a bright pinkish bloom in the distance and knew I had located something just as remarkable as the bird I was chasing. A cluster of piedmont azaleas were bursting out a showy display of flowers, a signal to everyone that spring has arrived. This past weekend I was reminded why I love getting out into the woods in Alabama.
With the Masters just around the corner, many of us are eagerly anticipating spring and the showy azalea flowers that always seem to coincide perfectly with the legendary southern golf tournament (props to the maintenance team there in Augusta). While I love the imagery and picturesque scenes, I can't help but be a little sad that most people will assume these are our native southern azaleas. Over the last few centuries, azaleas from Asia have been brought to America and have become the dominate azalea species found in ornamental landscapes and gardens. While I appreciate these foreign species for their own value, they have taken the place of our of native flora. Sadly, our native azaleas have been all but forgotten. But maybe we can help bring them back to the spotlight!
Piedmont azalea, or wild azalea, (Rhododendron canescens) is a deciduous shrub that enjoys moist sites along streams and bogs. Typically the flowers are white to pink in color and bloom from February to May (depending on region). If you've ever seen one of these shrubs in person, you can attest that they have some of the most exquisite flowers you'll ever see--they're also slightly fragrant. The plant can grow as tall as 15 feet, but typically I think of it in the landscape as a 5 to 8 foot shrub.
In addition to being the showiest bloom in the neighborhood, the piedmont azalea is also a good attractant for butterflies. In particular, swallowtails, Gulf fritillaries, and Monarchs will frequently visit the flowers. If you like the idea of bringing more life into your garden, give these native azaleas a try. Just as warning though, you probably won't find them at most box-store garden centers. While they are proven plant, they just don't meet cookie-cutter approach that most garden centers have adopted.
It probably won't ever be the signature plant for the 14th hole in Augusta, but hopefully it will find it's place back into our gardens and properties. If not, you might have to get out in the woods to find one these beauties. Maybe on a day when the turkeys aren't talking...
Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.