Posts Tagged Hammocksweet Azalea
Last week was too hot here, the heat made worse by the fact that most of the summer was unusually mild. Dust clouds rose with the slightest disturbance, lingering long in humid, stagnant air. It was not a week conducive to gardening.
Finally this past Sunday, cooler weather began to creep in, accompanied by clouds that dimmed what had been searing sun. Wonder Spouse immediately charged outdoors to catch up on tasks delayed by the heat, leaving our garage door open as he moved back and forth fetching tools, wheelbarrows, and assorted other necessities. His tasks did not require a second pair of hands, so I grabbed my camera and began acquainting myself with the latest developments on our five-acre jungle.
Fruit — that was the takeaway message from this walk. Most plants are well into fruit/seed production, clearly aware of dwindling daylight and down-trending temperatures. The Solomon’s Plumes I added to a wildflower bed on the north side of my yard all made numerous berries this year, as you can see in the photo above. The empty stems you see likely tell the tale of a hungry bird or other critter sampling these bright red berries. I think they look especially festive mingling with the evergreen Christmas fern — another native to our region.
Giant magenta stalks of Pokeweed — easily 8 feet tall — bend from the weight of purple-black clusters of ripe berries. These are favorites with many of the avian inhabitants of my yard, as evidenced by purple-tinged splats of bird excrement deposited on my walks and decks.
Branches of the large Red Buckeye on our floodplain are touching the ground, bent from the weight of nearly ripe fruits. Soon the husks will split and the shiny nut-like fruits will tumble to the ground. These nuts are poisonous to people, but some wild inhabitant makes them disappear every year.
The greatest surprise during my walkabout was my Hammocksweet Azalea — in full, overpoweringly fragrant bloom at the base of my north-facing garden, close to the creek. I sited it there, because this deciduous azalea — the last to bloom for me every year — is native to wetland environments. The flowers are pure white, without a hint of ivory, and their fragrance is knock-your-socks-off sweet. If it were any closer to my house, I think the fragrance might be overpowering, especially as this shrub continues to grow.
September is the month that many large native yellow composite wildflowers adorn every corner of my yard, and many roadsides. I added Green-Head Coneflower to the mix, because I love the prominent seed heads it forms, as do the seed-eating birds that dwell nearby.
My vegetable garden is mostly done for the year. A few peppers linger, and some broccoli plants are struggling to grow beneath the shelter of their Reemay tent. Many of the beds are packed with fresh green sprouts of crimson clover, my winter cover crop of choice. But one bed is dominated by the lovely mix of nasturtiums above. Unimpressed by heat, drought, deluges, or anything else as far as I can tell, they bloom continuously, spreading wandering shoots in all directions, even mingling a bit with adjacent beds full of crimson clover. Their gentle rose-like scent is nothing short of heavenly.
I encountered a bit of wildlife as I made my way around my yard. I think perhaps they’d been hunkering down during the heat wave too. Like me, they were out and about in force during my morning walk. Bird song filled the air. Many toads greeted me in all parts of the yard. I’m always happy to see these insect-eaters. A Green Anole rushed out of a potted plant when I began watering it. It was bright green to blend with the vegetation, and if it hadn’t objected to being watered, I likely would have never noticed it. Five-lined skinks skittered across open ground and up and down trees. A Black Racer darted beneath an aster blooming by my front deck when I got too close; it had been trying to warm itself in the cloud-dimmed sun.
But the highlight of the day came after I had put up my camera and gone back outside to gather some tools in the garage. A frantic bird fluttered at the back windows, too confused to realize that its way out was the other way, through the open garage door. It was an Eastern Phoebe, a small flycatcher common to my yard, thanks to the woodland creek — its preferred habitat — that borders our land.
I have spent many happy hours watching this beauty hunt from my back deck. Its keen eyes watch for flying insects. When it spots one, it leaps into the air, grabbing the bug on the wing, then returning to its perch to watch for more tidbits. Its aerial acrobatics are impressive, and its squeaky call, sounding more like a child’s squeeze doll than a bird, let’s me know it’s on bug patrol.
So when I discovered this distraught Eastern Phoebe desperately trying to escape our garage, I leapt into action. First, I opened all the other doors. Often this is enough to help a trapped bird find its way out. But this little one was unwilling to venture from the high window at the back of the garage. I next tried using a light-weight rake to reach up toward the bird, in the hopes that it would hop on and let me carry it out. This works surprisingly well with the occasional discombobulated hummingbird.
But not so for this Eastern Phoebe. Instead, it fluttered down the back wall, settling on a piece of plywood leaning against the wall, and mostly hidden by another, taller piece of plywood. I did the only thing I could think of. I quietly asked the little bird if it would allow me to pick it up with my hand and carry it to safety. It didn’t move, probably exhausted from its fruitless escape efforts. I chose to interpret its stillness as permission, gently reaching behind the plywood.
The poor, exhausted creature didn’t even struggle in my gentle grasp. I quietly thanked it for its cooperation as I carried it toward the front of the garage. I could feel its heartbeat thrumming through my fingers, otherwise feeling no movement. But as soon as we were clear of the garage, the soft brown bug hunter in my hand began to push against my grasp. I opened my palm and it immediately flew high into a nearby tree, apparently none the worse for its misadventure.
I closed all the garage doors to prevent further accidents, still feeling the heartbeat of that beautiful wild creature in my hand. Not for the first time, it occurred to me how blessed I am to live among the wild ones on our five acres of green chaos. So many people live their entire lives without ever feeling what it’s like to hold a bird in the hand.
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.