Posts Tagged deciduous azaleas
Winter cold finally arrived in my area about three days ago — highs in the upper 30s-low 40s, lows in the low 20s, and a wind chill that hurt skin accustomed to the weather of the previous four weeks, when nighttime temperatures rarely dropped into the upper 30s, and daytime temperatures stayed in the upper 60s and low 70s. During the 60+ years I’ve lived in North Carolina, an occasional winter warm weather interlude has not been unusual, but I can’t recall an entire month of such weather from mid-December to mid-January.
Such a prolonged warm spell caused many plants in my yard to break dormancy far earlier than normal — by at least six weeks. Many birds began displaying signs of territorial behavior as mating instincts awakened. Bluebirds burbled to each other as they discussed the merits of nesting box options. Insects were everywhere, as were the frogs, snakes, and lizards that eat them. It all felt very wrong.
The day before winter cold finally arrived here, I walked around the yard and took a few photos. Now that ice covers the abundant shallow water in channels on the floodplain, I suspect my late winter bloomers that opened four weeks early are probably now brown. I haven’t looked yet; that wind chill is mean. To remind myself of their loveliness, I include a few shots here, along with photos more typical of winter vegetation.
January jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) usually starts blooming in February, a few blooms at a time until March approaches. Many folks confuse them with forsythia, but a close examination makes the differences abundantly clear.
A native late winter bloomer, Hamamelis vernalis, is usually only showing a few petals by now. But the warmth caused the cultivar I grow to open more fully, scenting the air with a light, clean perfume that I always associate with spring cleaning.
An array of winter buds, remnant leaves, and bright moss lush from winter rains also caught my eye.
Late on the afternoon I took these shots, I was on my back deck when I noticed an insect on a window. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized it was a Green Lacewing adult, much smaller than the ones I routinely see in my garden during the growing season. It saddened me to know that this delicate-looking beneficial insect would certainly perish soon. If the freeze didn’t kill it, the absence of food certainly would.
My rain gauge recorded 1.77 inches of rain from yesterday afternoon until early this morning. The clouds parted by about 10:00 a.m., leaving clean air (no pollen!), moist ground, and almost visibly growing plants. A walk with the camera seemed essential.
The spring garden is growing well. We’ve been dry, so I’ve been watering lettuces, broccoli, onions, and potatoes to try to keep them growing, but I could see they weren’t as happy as they could be. Of course, some of that may have been because their coating of yellow-green pine pollen made them all look a bit sickly. But this morning, freshly washed, vibrant veggies greeted me.
In the greenhouse, the tomatoes I sowed last week have all germinated. Most of the peppers have too. The Scotch Bonnet pepper seeds I’m growing for a friend are still ungerminated, but they are notoriously slow, so I’m not worried yet.
The spring ephemerals have been coming and going fast, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather. Last night’s rain denuded all the still-blooming bloodroots, revealing erect seed capsules, standing like soldiers beneath the great canopy trees. The mayapples are full of flower buds, and the Atamasco lilies were putting up flower buds.
Blooming Shrubs and Trees — with Butterflies!
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are literally everywhere, floating at all levels, from treetops to lawn. It is especially wonderful to see after last year’s near-absence of all butterflies. Today I saw my first Spicebush Swallowtail, but it refused to pose for me. There were several other new, uncooperative species, and a gossamer-winged dragonfly that I suspect was newly emerged. The flowers were more cooperative photographic subjects, although a gusty wind (that re-awakened the pollen) did create some challenges.
Despite the rain, Wonder Spouse and I did manage to get our front water feature going for the new season. We anticipate that the local frogs and toads that lay eggs in it every year should arrive as soon as this latest cool spell has passed. The plants in the pots look a bit bare at the moment, but the pitcher plants and the new Venus Flytrap in them have flower buds, and the moisture-loving milkweeds are growing quickly. I think all will come together for the plants in a month or so.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been reported in my area, but I haven’t seen or heard one yet. Just in case, the feeder full of sugar water is in its usual spot. Soon these flying jewels will join the increasingly evident wildlife to enjoy the bounty of blooms that signal Spring’s arrival on our five acres.
Happy Spring, everyone!
Anyone who tells you gardening is easy is lying to you — at least if you garden with any seriousness. It is hard work to plan, plant, water, feed, weed, mulch, prune, harvest, etc. And when you do it on five acres as I do, it is very hard work.
Ah, but then spring comes, the yard greens, rainbow flower colors burst forth from every corner of the yard as birds and frogs sing love songs — and that’s the payoff. Best of all, when I do things right and the weather gods are kind, my sweat equity pays off bigger every year. Blooming azaleas grow larger and more spectacular, deciduous magnolias hold fragrant blooms aloft to scent the air and lure pollinators. The beauty is almost overwhelming. Seriously, sometimes I just have to sit down and mutter “Wow!”
I knew that prolonged heavy rains were arriving mid-day here today, so I spent an hour or so this morning wandering around my yard taking photos and paying compliments to all my green charges who repay my efforts so enthusiastically every year.
The shots so far are all from the acre of north slope we’ve enclosed within a deer fence. Here my blooming woody beauties grow unmolested.
All of my deciduous magnolias are unfurling their leaves and revealing their flower buds. I think the Fraser magnolia may just beat the Ashe magnolia in the first-to-bloom contest.
My latest big-leaf magnolia species addition is Magnolia pyramidata. I planted it last March. It is tiny, but so were the others when I planted them some years ago. When I see the small new magnolia just unfurling its leaves, I can look to its magnolia cousins for the payoff a few years of patience will bring.
I can’t resist offering a few more views from the north slope garden.
New leaves are also lovely in their own right.
Although I can’t take credit for planting the myriad, multiplying wildflowers that grace the wetland on and adjacent to our five acres, I can take credit for appreciating it, encouraging it, and lavishing it with compliments when it begins its spring display.
One of my additions to this breathtakingly healthy wetland is a Red Buckeye.
I took 171 pictures today. Not all of them were great, but even so, I think this is enough for one post. Soon I must update you on the vegetable garden. Much is happening there. And other parts of the yard are also in full, glorious flower. Truly, I am blessed with an embarrassment of botanical riches. But as I count my blessings, I remind myself that I had a lot to do with the beauty that now surrounds me. All the sore muscles, the sweat, the dirt, and yes, the bug bites are all worth this annual payoff — a payoff that grows larger and more wonderful every year.
From the search strings that bring people to this blog looking for information, it is possible for me to identify common themes — questions that repeat, often at specific times of the year. To answer those, I’ve decided to add a new category: FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions. This is the first post in that category.
Lately, I’ve seen several search strings asking why the writer’s deciduous azaleas aren’t blooming. Today, I’ll answer that question specifically, and I’ll also offer factors you may want to consider the next time something you’ve planted doesn’t bloom as expected.
Why isn’t my deciduous azalea blooming?
First, where are you? My earliest blooming azaleas are only just now starting to show swelling buds; I expect them to bloom in the next week or so here in the piedmont region of North Carolina. If you are further south, your local deciduous azaleas may well be blooming. If yours aren’t and your neighbors’ azaleas are blooming, check for these issues:
- Does your azalea have flower buds? Flower buds of these shrubs are much larger and rounder than the leaf buds. Here’s an example:
- How old is your planting? Most of my deciduous azaleas didn’t begin blooming until the third year after I planted them, because I buy small, less expensive shrubs.
- Is your shrub still alive? Because these shrubs mostly bloom before they leaf out, a casual glance may not answer this question. With your fingernail, gently scrape away a bit of bark along the stem. If you see green, your shrub is alive. This is a great way to test for life signs in any woody plant.
- Is your shrub sited correctly? Some deciduous azaleas are native to dry slopes, some to moist slopes, and some to moist bottomlands. If your shrub isn’t sited correctly, blooming will be inhibited.
- Is your shrub getting enough sunlight during the growing season? The leaves that follow flowering won’t be able to make enough food to create flower buds for the next season if they don’t receive enough sunlight. In my experience, these shrubs need a minimum of four hours of strong sunlight, preferably morning light.
- Is your shrub receiving enough TLC? Are you watering during droughts? If not, to conserve resources, shrubs will drop flower buds first. Are the roots mulched to keep them cool? Are weeds choking the shrub? Any of these factors stress your shrub and reduce its likelihood of flowering.
- Did your shrub bloom heavily last year? Some plants alternate heavy blooming years; some even wait several years before blooming heavily again. If yours was gorgeous last year, maybe it’s taking a break this year.
- Did your yard get hit with a late hard freeze? Cold air kills tender flower buds and blooms quite easily. Check your plant for limp, brown buds.
- Have you checked for deer damage? Flower buds of deciduous azaleas are not favorite deer food, but deer will eat — or at least taste — almost any plant. If you have stems with the buds chomped off, suspect deer. After the leaves drop this fall, spray any flower buds you see with deer repellant, or enclose the area where the azaleas grow with deer fencing to keep the critters away from your beauties.
- Did you prune your shrub at the wrong time? Deciduous azaleas should never be sheared into shapes the way some folks do to their evergreen Asian azaleas (and they shouldn’t do that either, in my opinion). The natural branching structure of deciduous azaleas is part of their charm. However, if you feel the need to prune a stray branch, be sure to do it just after the shrub finishes flowering and before it sets flower buds for the following growing season. This applies to all blooming trees and shrubs. Prune them after they flower; otherwise, you will be pruning branches containing the next season’s flower buds.
The above questions/guidelines apply to blooming perennials, other shrubs, and also trees. By the way, fertilizing these plants can often create more problems. If you site your plants correctly, mulch them with an organic, weed-free mulch, and keep them adequately watered, they will thrive without additional nutrients. The staff at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC never fertilize any of their gorgeous plantings. Fresh organic mulch is applied annually, and they add water during droughts. That’s it; that’s all happy natives need.
The only plants I fertilize in my yard are the few annual flowers I plant along my front walk, and my vegetables. These short-lived plants appreciate the extra boost fertilizer offers. Before I realized my native plantings didn’t need the help, I noticed that the fertilized plants in my yard were preferentially devoured by deer — one more reason to eschew fertilizers, even the organic ones.
The next time you expect a plant to flower and it doesn’t deliver, run down the above checklist to be sure you’ve met all its requirements. If you have, all I can counsel is patience.
With a little planning and minimal effort, one of the fastest ways to enhance your home landscape is through the addition of shrubs. Most folks in the southeastern Piedmont are in shrub ruts, thanks to the overuse of the same few bushes by landscapers of new subdivisions and commercial buildings. A few of those overused shrubs — like Wax Myrtle — are native plants, and so provide food and shelter for wildlife without the invasive tendencies that many non-natives exhibit. But boxwoods, grape hollies (Mahonias), and evergreen azaleas are not native. And the invasive tendencies of Mahonias in our native wetlands is an increasing concern to ecologists.
Today I encourage you to think beyond standardized Piedmont shrubbery. It’s time to consider adding some of our many gorgeous native shrubs to your home landscape. There’s a native shrub for any growing conditions you may have. Some can attain the size of small trees, such as a mature Bladdernut. But others remain just a few feet tall without the need for pruning, including some deciduous azalea and blueberry species.
The advice I offered in my previous post about tree planting applies equally to shrubs. Understand the site where you want to add your shrubs. Is it at the top of a sunny hill? Shaded by larger trees or buildings? In a low spot where rainwater collects? Clay soil? Sandy loam?
When you know the answers to those questions, if the area in question is not already a mulched bed, take the time to create a bed. Break up the soil, work in compost or other organic material to create a moist, loamy planting site. When you add the shrubs, be sure to gently stretch out any roots that might be winding around the interior of the pot. Be sure the level of the dirt in your bed matches where the dirt in the pot touched the base of the stem.
Water in your new addition, then mulch the bed with an inch or two of organic mulch — leaves, wood chips, bark — any of those will do nicely. As with new trees, your new shrubs will need a bit of pampering for their first year of growth. If your area goes into drought, water your newbies. Don’t worry about fertilizer. Native shrubs in a well-prepared planting site don’t need it and don’t really want it.
If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ve read about a number of native shrub options worthy of any Piedmont landscape. Here are a few for your consideration.
For Colorful Drama: Deciduous Azaleas
The southeastern US is home to spectacular native deciduous azaleas, and I’ve described all the ones I grow in this blog. If you search on deciduous azalea, you’ll find the relevant entries. The one here is probably mostly Rhododendron austrinum, but it was listed as a hybrid in the catalog. Talk about making an impact in the spring landscape! Not only are its numerous flowers impossible to miss, their fragrance is equally impressive, and utterly heavenly. The spring-blooming deciduous azaleas mostly do so before their leaves emerge, thereby increasing their visual impact. The summer bloomers, like Plumleaf Azalea, bloom after leaves appear, but the visual impact still stops visitors in their tracks.
Not all deciduous azaleas are fragrant, colors range from pure white to pale yellow to deep gold to rich pinks, oranges, and deep crimsons. Sizes and site requirements vary too. Truly, there is a native azalea ideally suited for almost any growing condition.
Because they drop their leaves in fall (after a spectacular fall leaf color display), deer mostly ignore these shrubs in the landscape. Every once in a while, one will bite off a flower bud in winter or grab a mouthful of summer leaves as it walks past, but deer don’t seem to want to devour this shrub, as they will with Virginia Sweetspire, for example. The deciduous azalea native to my area is Pinxterbloom Azalea (see top photo). I have a ten-foot-tall-and-wide specimen growing on the slope to my floodplain that has always been completely unprotected. The deer eat nearby plants, but ignore the giant Pinxterbloom Azalea.
In my yard, even small, newly planted deciduous azaleas usually begin blooming within the first three years, most sooner than that. Try them; you will not be disappointed.
For Four-Season Interest: Hydrangeas
If you’ve got dry shade, Oakleaf Hydrangea is for you. Yes, you’ll need to water it for the first year during dry spells until it’s settled in, but that’s about it. Late spring clusters of white flowers eventually dry on the shrub, making lovely additions to dried flower arrangements. Leaves are bright green in summer and turn scarlet in autumn, remaining on the stems well into late fall. Winter bark is a deep rich brown that contrasts beautifully with snow. In neighborhoods plagued by deer, the leaves of these shrubs will be eaten. In my yard, I find that if I spray the leaves with one of the repellant mixtures you can buy at any landscape supply store, the deer don’t touch them. In my yard, if I spray in early spring when the leaves are just emerging and again in autumn, I deter most of the nibbling. These are the times when the deer are hungriest in my area. The spray I apply smells horrible (garlic and pepper, I think), but when it dries, I can’t smell it — but the deer still can.
For Lingering Berries: Deciduous Hollies
That photo was taken in late winter. The bright red berries of our native deciduous hollies are the food of last resort with my local birds. Eventually, usually at the tail end of a cold winter, a flock of Cedar Waxwings will descend on these shrubs that I’ve added to my floodplain and strip them clean. I love these shrubs because the persistent crimson berries really pop in a winter landscape, especially because the branches drop their leaves well before that season. Ilex decidua and I. verticillata have been favorites of horticulturalists for a while. Many spectacular cultivars are available reaching various sizes. They’re native to floodplains, but happily tolerate higher ground in a well-prepared bed.
Note that all hollies are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers develop on separate plants. Females produce the lovely berries, as long as a male of the same species is close by. I usually group two or three females where I want them to be seen, and then tuck in a male plant nearby but more in the background — close enough to provide cross pollination, but far enough away to prevent its lack of berries from detracting from the visual impact of these shrubs in the winter landscape.
The List of Options is Long and Varied
This post is growing lengthy, so I’m going to close with a few more suggestions and links to where I’ve described these shrubs before.
- Spicebush — Lindera benzoin
- Virginia Sweetspire — Itea virginica
- Viburnums — Mapleleaf, Arrowwood, and Haws, to name a few
- Beautyberry — Callicarpa americana
- Bladdernut — Staphylea trifolia
October fast approaches. Now is the optimal time to plant native trees and shrubs. Almost every local nursery has a sale this time of year, and so do most public gardens, including the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC. Members-only night is this Friday. If you live in this area, I hope I’ll see you there!
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.
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.
As always happens this time of year, Spring is blasting through my yard so fast that I cannot keep up — at least, not in my blog postings. Since early April, every day new bloomers have started while others have stopped. Because I’ve been focused on the vegetable garden, I have not had time to share all the beauty that surrounds me. But fear not, faithful readers, I have been taking hundreds upon hundreds of photographs. Today’s post is the first installment designed to catch you up on all the glorious blossoms.
Let me take you back in time to the middle of April, when my 35-foot tall Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera) was in full bloom. I told you about this spectacular understory native here, but I’ve mentioned it in several other posts over the years. If you search on the name, you’ll find all the relevant posts for this tree. The close-up of the flowers above demonstrates their loveliness — and their popularity with native pollinators.
Here’s what the entire tree looked like this year:
I had to stand pretty far away to get all of it in the photo. That little bit of white at the top right is a bit of the large dogwood trying to show off some of its flowers in the shot.
In the interest of fairness, that aforementioned native dogwood deserves a photo of its own:
To the left in the above photo, you can just see a few blooms of the native redbud variety, ‘Forest Pansy,’ and, of course that’s a bit of Loropetalum ‘Zhuzhou Fuchsia’ filling up the right side of the photo.
Because the showy part of a dogwood flower is actually its bracts, they aren’t quite as pure a white as the petals of the Two-winged Silverbell. But they persist much longer in the landscape.
And, since I mentioned Redbuds, I feel obliged to show you one of the standard natives in my yard in full bloom. Its lavender blossoms are emphasized by the green backdrop of the native Red Cedars behind it.
Now I want to turn your attention to the deciduous azaleas in my yard. I mention them in passing regularly, and you can find all the links by searching on the species or the category. The links that follow point back to the first posts from 2011 in which I described these wonderful understory natives.
Since 2011, all the azaleas have grown considerably. Some attain mature sizes in the 20′ x 15′ range, and I can tell that several of my specimens are well on their way to achieving their full potential. Some species and/or their cultivars bloom magnificently every year, while others seem to alternate years.
First to bloom, as usual, was Pinxterbloom Azalea (Rhodendron periclymenoides). It had its lushest bloom season so far, and thanks to the mostly cool weather, the blooms persisted longer than usual.
Soon after, it’s cultivar, ‘Purple,’ also bloomed, but its blooms were sparse this year.
Overlapping the bloom time of Pinxterbloom was my R. austrinum hybrid, Pastel #19. This shrub is always ridiculously floriferous, and its potent perfume carries halfway across my five-acre yard on spring breezes. When it is at peak bloom, it stops visitors in their tracks every time.
While Pastel #19 continued to bloom, another hybrid, Pastel #20 started its bloom cycle. Perhaps hybrid vigor explains why both these hybrids bloom with spectacular consistency every year.
I love the golden throats on these flowers.
Next to bloom was my R. alabamense, a native that is also reliably floriferous even without the benefits of hybrid vigor.
Its flowers emit a faint perfume that I enjoy for its subtlety.
The mostly cool spring has definitely prolonged bloom time for the azaleas this year.
My Oconee Azalea (R. flammeum) is over 8 feet tall now. Its form is more open than some of the other deciduous azalea species. My specimen bloomed heavily last year. This year, it’s not quite as floriferous, but still a knockout in the landscape.
Last of the azalea natives to bloom so far this year is Coastal Azalea (R. atlanticum). This native of southeastern US coastal plains keeps a much lower profile than my other deciduous azaleas. So far, it’s only about three feet tall in its high spots. The native species is a colonial spreader, but my cultivar, ‘Winterthur,’ is supposed to be more polite. It has gotten wider, but not aggressively so.
The flowers of Coastal Azalea are pure white, with no throat blotches as you see in R. alabamense. They are very potently fragrant — a cloying sweetness that is not my favorite. Because of its smaller size, I often smell the open flowers on this specimen before I see them the first time.
Flowers of a couple of my other deciduous azalea varieties are almost open for business. I’ll show you those soon. Meanwhile, let me close today’s post with a photo or two of my trellis full of blooming Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’).
Unlike invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, the Major (as I like to call him) does not spread aggressively. However, it is enthusiastic, so I do cut it back severely every other year. The Major doesn’t object to this treatment, continuing to bloom so magnificently that every visitor to my house stops, gapes, and begs to know his name.