September Sugar: Hammocksweet Azalea

Rhododendron serrulatum

Rhododendron serrulatum

The grand finale bloomer of my native deciduous azalea collection is Hammocksweet Azalea. Some folks call it Sweet Azalea, some call it Swamp Azalea, and depending on whether your taxonomic bent leans toward lumping or splitting, some consider it a separate species named as in the photo (Rhododendron serrulatum), while others either lump it entirely under R. viscosum (Swamp Azalea) or call it a variety (R. viscosum, var. serrulatum).

Personally, I think the good folks at one of my favorite nurseries, Woodlanders, make an excellent case for keeping this beauty as a separate species. They note, for example, that this azalea blooms later and looks different in form and other characteristics from R. viscosum. I agree. I grow R. viscosum too. In my yard, it bloomed before R. prunifolium, which finished its glorious display of red flowers in July.

Hammocksweet Azalea, on the other hand, had barely started blooming by the middle of August, and it’s still opening clusters of sugar-sweet tubular white flowers as I type this. This is the first year my specimen has bloomed enthusiastically, and I suspect our wonderfully wet summer is responsible. Hammocksweet Azalea is native to swampy areas of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. A hammock (a variation on the word hummock), for those unfamiliar with southern swamps, is a little hill in a swamp — a speck of slightly drier land surrounded by mucky water. Alligators like to doze on hammocks.

I sited my Hammocksweet Azalea at the bottom of my north slope near my creek in the hopes that the ground would stay moist enough there to keep this shrub happy. It has survived but not flourished over our recent hot, dry summers. Growth was also slowed, I suspect, by its incarceration within a wire cage — necessary to prevent deer predation, since this azalea lives outside my deer-fenced area.

Thanks to the wet summer, this shrub is now about 3.5 feet tall and about as wide (it needs a bigger wire cage). In its ideal environment, the shrub can grow 10-15-feet tall and 4-6-feet wide. Woodlanders warns that it prefers moist, but not saturated, soil.

This year’s wet summer pushed my specimen into a growth spurt that included many healthy sets of flower buds. To be sure, the flowers are not as showy as those of some of my other deciduous azaleas. In fact, they look a lot like the flowers of the evil invasive vine, Japanese Honeysuckle. Even the scent is somewhat similar. The flower buds on my specimen are tinged with a faint pink, but when the flowers open, they are a very pure white, narrowly tubular, and quite fragrant. On a humid afternoon with a bit of breeze, I can smell my blooming shrub from a fair distance away.

Note the faint pinkness of the flower buds.

Note the faint pinkness of the flower buds.

If you have a moist, bare spot in your yard, even in a shady area, and you’d like to add sweet fragrance and hummingbird-beloved blooms to your landscape, consider planting a Hammocksweet Azalea.

We’re approaching the ideal time for planting such an addition, and I know of at least one local source in my area, so I don’t think it will be hard to find, wherever you live in the southeastern US.

Deciduous azaleas are one of the reasons I love being a southeastern Piedmont gardener. The array of sizes, colors, habitat requirements, and bloom times, means there is at least one type suitable for every Piedmont garden. And if you’re an avidly obsessive gardener with more yard space than sense like me, you may find yourself accumulating your own special collection of native beauties, guaranteeing you a succession of color and fragrance from spring’s warming temperatures to autumn’s cooling breezes.

Hummingbirds and butterflies visit these early autumn blooms.

Hummingbirds and butterflies visit these early autumn blooms.

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