Sunday, April 19, 2015
The Imperial Piedmont Azalea
When I was growing up, my parents had a piedmont azalea that was queen of the side yard. From my earliest memory, it was sprawling and spready—utterly enormous. A grand thing. In spring it would be dressed in pale and shining raiment and surrounded by fawning courtiers (bees and butterflies).
By the time I was 10 or 11, its origin had become the stuff of legend. Mom and Dad had rescued it when the Tallahassee Mall was just about to be built. Apparently the site of future construction had been temporarily opened to the public and Tallahasseeans had come out with their shovels to dig wild azaleas and dogwoods and ferns from the doomed woods.
As a child I was fascinated by bygone times, and I would often wonder what our town must have been like when the azalea was rescued, before the big mall came in. (I couldn't really remember.) It was sad to think about what was lost, of the woods that were only ghosts now, only memories. Tallahassee was always changing, always growing, getting bigger and uglier (in my opinion).
Our azalea seemed like a precious relic of the past—that’s how my parents treated it. Like a dinosaur bone. I never dreamed, as a child, that you could just go to a nursery and buy a piedmont azalea. I thought the plant could only be found in wild, undisturbed places, and I knew there weren't many of those left.
So I was really excited to discover, in my early 30s, that piedmont azaleas are pretty widely available in the nursery trade. In my yard in Quincy, I now have dozens. I've planted them in clusters around my various patios and sitting areas, and I've planted them singly, here and there, in our patch of woods in the backyard.
Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) is a large deciduous shrub (6 to 15 feet is the typical height) with a delicate texture and a graceful, open form. When it’s in bloom, especially, it has a wonderfully ethereal quality. One time when I was young (in my twenties), I was on a Greyhound bus headed through South Georgia when I spied one, in full flower, in a dreary stretch of still mostly bare March woods. The gray of the landscape went on and on, mile after mile, but then there it was—the piedmont azalea—such a sweet surprise. It was like happening on a fairy or an angel. My heart quickened at this beautiful, unexpected, and unearthly vision, and I was filled with delight—even though I had no money and no prospects and was riding on a bus.
The 2-inch flowers are fragrant and funnel-shaped, arranged in wreath-like clusters. Their very long stamens make them look extra fancy and dainty. The flowers open in early spring, often before the leaves, and come in a variety of colors. Some plants have white flowers. Others have pink—and the pinks come in all shades, from light to dark, from baby pink to bubblegum to rose. (It’s always a fun, when I bring home a new plant, to see what color its flowers will be.) White or pink, the flowers smell delicious, and they provide nectar for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.
The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long, medium green, velvety, oval-shaped, and cute. They make nice blankets for tiny hedgehog and mouse babies when you’re playing Calico Critters with children.
Piedmont azalea thrives in moist, rich, well-drained, acidic soils. Part-shade is best, though plants can be grown in full sun with careful watering. In the wild, piedmont azalea is often seen growing along streams and the edges of swamps. It’s native from Central Florida up to North Carolina and west to East Texas.
Piedmont azaleas can live a long time. The one at Mom’s house is about 50 years old now and is still as splendid and stately as ever. I was over there on Easter, and before I hid a pink egg in a branch, I made a little bow in tribute.