Native azaleas best choice for East Coast

Maryland abounds with beautiful plants adapted to the region

In The Garden

April 13, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

It's not spring -- not really -- until the azaleas bloom. But when they do, it's an explosion of color and drama, like the grand finale in a Wagnerian opera. Lavender, mauve, pink, white, orange, scarlet, and yellow, they froth through woodlands, light up lawns, and offer breathtaking color along the highways.

"Seeing them in the wild with mountains in the background is like heaven," says Donald Hyatt, president of the Potomac chapter of the Azalea Society of America. Hyatt, who owns Stonehouse Creek Nursery in McLean, Va., fell in love with azaleas as a child when he first saw the deciduous varieties at the National Arboretum. "That was it," he remembers. "They were absolutely gorgeous."

But their beauty was only part of the attraction. Later, when Hyatt learned that many deciduous azaleas are East Coast natives, he began to collect and propagate them, to help preserve a piece of our natural heritage.

"We try to preserve the rain forests," he says. "Native azaleas [and other native plants] are our legacy here."

A host of azaleas

Azaleas come in both deciduous and evergreen types. Thanks to centuries of hybridizing, there are now over 10,000 named varieties ranging from ground-covering shrubs to 60-foot-tall trees and even a few weeping types like 'Pink Cascade.' Blooms vary widely too: There are single-flowered five-petal types with 5-inch blooms; frilly doubles with 12 petals; and varieties like Rhodo-dendron indicum 'Balsamini-florum,' with 30 petals each.

Some are fragrant, others virtually scentless, but all are in the rhododendron family.

"All azaleas are rhododendrons, but not all rhododendrons are azaleas," explains Mike White, who owns White's Nursery, an azalea nursery in Germantown, and whose grandfather, George Harding, helped found the Azalea Society of America.

Charles Hanners, owner of Azalea Trace, a nursery in Huntingtown, reels off a list of his picks, among them: 'Hershey Red,' a durable variety often planted around image-conscious fast-food places, 'Coral Bells,' 'Cherry Blossom' and 'Blaauws Pink,' which is pale salmon.

"It's hard to choose a favorite. My favorite azalea is always the last one I've looked at," he confesses. "But one of my constants is 'Ben Morrison.' "

'Ben Morrison,' covered with 2 1/2 -inch-deep yellowish pink flowers with white margins, is one of the 450 Glenn Dale azaleas -- evergreen winter-hardy azaleas -- developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1920s.

"Maryland has contributed hugely to the world's horticultural heritage," contends Courtland Lee, owner of Box Lee Nursery in Glenn Dale.

This hybridizing effort in Glenn Dale, whose results were named after the area of Prince George's County, tremendously increased the number and hardiness range of the species.

"After the Glenn Dales, the Robin Hill types are the next hardy," says White. "And they bloom later -- around June and July -- so you have ongoing bloom."

One of White's favorite evergreen azaleas is dapper little 'Hardy Gardenia,' which has a brilliant white flower like a gardenia though it's not fragrant. Another favorite is 'Whitehead,' with flowers of white, pink and dark pink swirled together.

Care and feeding

Although azaleas are usually easy to grow, getting the right one is key, so ask questions before you buy. The catalog never said that the 'Washington Centennial' azaleas I bought last spring and babied through that appalling summer hate the heat. I lost all but one.

"Growers are still sending us stuff that does well on the West Coast," says Hyatt, "but it won't last. You need to get azaleas that are adapted to this region, like 'Caroline,' which is a plant for the long term."

In general, azaleas need acid soil and dappled shade. They usually do well when planted with juniper, pine, holly or other acid-loving plants that can screen the wind, which will dry out the leaves. They like moisture but need good drainage or the roots will rot.

"It helps to plant azaleas with the tops of their root balls a few inches above ground level, then mound the soil up to the plants," White suggests. Soak them weekly during drought. Other-wise, leave them alone.

Their two main predators are deer and lacebugs, which chew on the underside of the leaves. To combat the bugs, Hyatt recommends a systemic insecticide. The deer are another matter. Last winter, deer decimated about 80 percent of Hanners' potted azaleas. Preventatives, including predator urine (available through catalogs and garden centers) and Dial soap stuck on sticks beside plants, sometimes work.

SOURCES

The Azalea Society of America

www.azaleas.org

The Brookside Chapter of the Azalea Society of America

This group has these azalea plant sales coming up:

May 10, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.: Tilden School parking lot in Rockville

May 11, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: The Triangle of the National Arboretum in Washington DC

May 17, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Brookside Gardens in Wheaton

For information, call Deb White at 301-831-9164.

White's Nursery

22529 Wildcat Road

Germantown, MD 20876

301-831-9164

Many varieties of evergreen azaleas

Box Lee Nursery

6106 Hillmeade Road

Glenn Dale, MD 20769

301-352-8757

More than 1,000 azalea varieties

Open Saturdays in April and May only

Azalea Trace

5510 Stephen Reid Road

Huntingtown, MD 20639

301-855-2305

Evergreen azaleas

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