For Marylanders, spring begins when the azaleas bloom

Brief bursts of color decorate dappled spots

other gardens are ablaze in flowering shrubs

April 24, 2005|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Forget daffodils and robins. It isn't really spring in Maryland until the azaleas bloom. While they're sometimes called the "royalty of the garden," azaleas are not so much dignified queens as fairy princesses tripping through the woodlands and across shade-dappled lawns in frothy lavender, mauve, pink, white, apricot, crimson and butter yellow dresses.

"They only last a few weeks," notes Jane Baldwin, president of the Cylburn Arboretum Association, "but they are absolutely gorgeous."

All azaleas are rhododendrons (though not all rhododendrons are azaleas) and come in both deciduous and evergreen types ranging from ground-covering shrubs to 60-foot-tall trees with a beautiful variety in blooms. But not all thrive here.

"Your best bet is to find a local grower and buy from this [Mid-Atlantic] area," says Mike White, owner of White's Nursery in Germantown.

With a range of deciduous natives, Maryland is azalea country. But it's also home to the hardy evergreen Glenn Dale Azaleas developed by Benjamin Y. Morrison, first director of the National Arboretum in Washington. Over 25 years, Morrison produced 454 azalea varieties whose bloom size and color offer spectacular (and almost carefree) choices for Maryland gardeners.

One understandable favorite is 'Ben Morrison,' which is covered with 2 1/2 -inch-deep yellowish pink flowers with white margins. But there are many others, such as 'Hershey Red,' a durable variety often planted around image-conscious fast-food places, 'Coral Bells,' and 'Blaauws Pink,' which is pale salmon.

"People in Maryland should really grow [R. atlanticum] 'Marydel,'" says Don Hyatt, owner of Stonehouse Creek Nursery in McLean, Va. "It's short with a white blossom blushed peach. It's also extremely fragrant and has distinctive bluish green foliage, so it looks nice all year."

Low-growing 'Hardy Gardenia' has a brilliant white flower like a gardenia but without the fragrance. Taller (3-4 foot) 'Whitehead' has showy blooms of white, pink and dark pink swirled together. The bloom of 'George Lindsey Tabor' is palest lavender with darker lavender veins and a big rose blotch.

"It really imitates an orchid in its looks," says Wanda Hanners, owner of Azalea Trace, a nursery in Huntingtown. The newer Holly Springs varieties, developed from Glenn Dales, include 'Maid Marion' and 'Loblolly Bay,' which is like an old-fashioned single rose.

The Nakaharae series offers dwarf varieties. Originally from Taiwan, they bloom in June, are very hardy and take heat well. Prostrate R. nakaharae 'Seven Star,' for example, is wonderful for crawling over walls. The taller (3-5 foot) kiusianum varieties offer a range of bloom colors from purply lavender through pinks to white and brick red. And R. macrosepalum 'Koromo Shikibu' offers very unusual blooms.

"It has beautiful straplike lavender petals, which gives it a spidery look," says Hank Schannen, owner of Rare Find Nursery in Jackson, N.J.

Individual azaleas usually bloom for two weeks tops, but you can extend the show with varieties. For example, Glenn Dales generally flower in May while the Robin Hill types open around June and July. Additionally, there are the Encore azaleas, which bloom once in spring and then again in fall.

"But they tend not to do well long-term here in Maryland," says Hanners.

However, some early-blooming Maryland favorites occasionally bloom a second time in fall. 'Hardy Gardenia' often blooms a second time in a single year as do 'Dorset,' an early blooming coral red, and pale lavender-pink 'Sussex.'

'Opal' often reblooms here, adds Hanners. "It's a beautiful lavender double bloom that people fall in love with. But it's a rangy plant, so I suggest putting it toward the back of the border."

Azaleas need acid soil with good drainage. Some will thrive in sun, though most prefer dappled shade. When planting, dig the hole twice as big as the plant. Make a 50 / 50 mix of hole dirt with wet peat moss for planting.

"The wet peat moss will then act as a moisture reservoir for the plant, which will draw what it needs," says Hanners. "But if it isn't well-moistened to start with, the peat moss will draw from the plant."

Be sure to plant the root ball at least an inch above the ground level. Then mulch with hardwood mulch.

"The mulch breaks down and fertilizes the plants. But you need to put it on twice a year," says White.

Azalea Sales

May 7: Mason Dixon Rhododendron Sale, Farmer's Market, Carroll County Agricultural Center, Westminster, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

May 7: Tilden Middle School Sale, 11211 Old Georgetown Road, Rockville, 8 a.m. to noon

May 8: National Arboretum Sale, 3501 New York Avenue NE, Washington, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

May 15: Brookside Gardens Sale, 1800 Glenallen Ave., Wheaton, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.


Stonehouse Creek Nursery

1948 Lorraine Ave.

McLean, VA 22101


White's Nursery

22529 Wild Cat Rd.

Germantown, MD



Azalea Trace

5510 Stephen Reid Rd.

Huntingtown, MD 20639


Rare Find Nursery

957 Patterson Rd.

Jackson, NJ 08527


Azalea Society of America

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