Barry Fugatt: Native azaleas among most beautiful of woodland shrubs – Tulsa World

barry-fugatt:-native-azaleas-among-most-beautiful-of-woodland-shrubs-–-tulsa-world

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Barry Fugatt: Native azaleas among most beautiful of woodland shrubs

Plumleaf Azalea blooms in mid- to late summer. Flower colors range from bright orange to red.

Barry Fugatt, for the Tulsa World

Barry Fugatt
Garden World
While searching a seed rack at a local garden center, a fellow shopper introduced himself and proceeded to tell me about a shrub encounter he had during a summer hike through the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. He excitedly described gorgeous shrubs flowering in dapple light beneath tall mountain-side timber. He also informed me that a park ranger identified the beautiful shrubs as wild native azaleas. He was doubtful, however, and asked me if wild azaleas grew in America. It was his understanding that azaleas were native only to the Orient.The Great Smokey Mountains, I assured him, are home to lots of native azaleas, and given the right environment and care, several species flourish in Tulsa-area gardens.Wild deciduous azalea species are among the most beautiful of woodland shrubs. They have an airy, open-branched structure, very much the opposite of say, a densely branched holly or abelia. And when these native shrubs load up with vividly colored yellow, orange or red flowers, some of which are highly fragrant, the impact on a woodland garden is spell-binding. Depending upon the species, flowering typically occurs in early to mid-summer.If you wish to apply your green thumb to growing native deciduous azaleas, understand that they are ericaceous (acid soil-loving) plants that have evolved over ions of time in rich, organic forest soils. They also are classic “under-story” species that thrive in dapple light beneath large deciduous trees like oaks, ash, maples, hickory etc.When I laughingly told a friend, who planted and promptly lost a half-dozen deciduous azaleas, that they are quite easy to grow, he looked at me as if I had suddenly three noses. It’s true, I insisted. Simply give them everything they want: rich, organic soil heavily amended with peat or compost, regular summer watering, a thick organic mulch of composted leaves or crushed pine bark, dapple sun light and excellent soil drainage. He, on the other hand, planted his azaleas in full sun and in clay soil. Just between you and me, the boy has a very brown thumb.Here is a partial list of native azaleas: Sweet Azalea (Rhododendron arborescens): Considered by many to be the best native azalea. Creamy white flowers have prominent red stamens and a sweet fragrance. They bloom in May and June and occasionally a second time in late summer.Flame Azalea (R. calendulaceum): This is the Appalachian mountain azalea preferred by many. It’s a June bloomer with large 2-inch diameter flowers. Colors range from yellow to deep red.Plumleaf Azalea (R. prunifolium): This is the famous Georgia native and a favorite of mine. It blooms in mid- to late summer. Flower colors range from bright orange to red.If you’re blessed with large deciduous trees and dapple shade on your property, give wild azaleas a try. They make a splendid display when grown in groupings of three to five. They also add great interest when randomly placed into a mixed shrub border. Lots of new hybrid cultivars have entered the nursery market in recent years. Look for them at local garden centers this spring.Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He can be reached by email: [email protected]

Plumleaf Azalea blooms in mid- to late summer. Flower colors range from bright orange to red.

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