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Rhododendron austrinum – Florida Azalea

When I was nineteen I was walking down a Georgia dirt road in a Georgia rural county. I had no money, a son I couldn’t afford, and little else. It was enough. I spied an old house with an elderly man out front. The garden was nothing special, but by the front door was a shrub at least ten feet tall covered with golden flowers. There were only a few leaves on the plant. I stopped by and asked the man about this stunning shrub that graced his doorway.

He called it a honeysuckle bush, and indeed the blooms looked like golden-orange honeysuckle flowers. This was my introduction to the splendor that is the Florida azalea.

Native deciduous azalea - Florida azalea
Florida azalea – Rhododendron austrinum.

The Florida azalea, Rhododendron austrinum, is a deciduous azalea native to Georgia and Florida.

Many people are not aware that our native azaleas are deciduous. Even my wife Angela, who is a worthy plantswoman in her own right, is surprised anew every spring when I start discussing the merits of our native deciduous azaleas. Raised to consider them evergreen, she just can’t yet wrap her mind around the idea of deciduous azaleas.

Another issue that often confounds people is azaleas fall into the genus ‘Rhododendron’. Case in point: The scientific name of the subject of this article is ‘Rhododendron austrinum’.

Florida azalea - native deciduous azalea

Growth is deliberate to 10 feet or so. The Florida azalea is adapted to the more southern reaches of the southeastern United States. A fast-draining soil is mandatory. Soil with a sandy constitution is fine. Under no circumstances should the roots sit in water for extended periods.

Water well the first season, and then keep a (very) casual eye on soil moisture in successive years. Hardiness is zones 6/7-9. Bearing in mind that winter hardiness is not excellent, you will be growing this shrub in a hot climate. Afternoon sun is unacceptable. As with many azaleas, morning sun and afternoon shade OR filtered light all day will be fine. The Florida azalea is an understory shrub in the landscape, and it would be advisable to site in a similar situation in the garden.

The two greatest dangers are hot afternoon sun and wet feet (roots in soil that drains poorly). If you can avoid these two perils, your success is (almost) assured. Grow your own honeysuckle bush.

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