Azaleas are spring showstoppers

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Wild Green Yonder is a recurring monthly feature from the staff of the Norfolk Botanical Garden.

April is the month for azaleas!

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Daffodil, dogwood and azalea blooms signal that spring has arrived and summer is around the bend. Azaleas are ubiquitous around town, especially in older established neighborhoods. And, almost anyone can recognize an azalea, even if he or she is not a “plant person.” One of the best places to see a spectacular showing this spring is at Norfolk Botanical Garden.

The garden got its start as a premier spring destination in 1938 as a Works Progress Administration project. Frederic Heutte, Norfolk’s first superintendent of parks and forestry, was so impressed by the magnificent azaleas in Charleston, S.C., that he wanted to create the same kind of tourist destination in Norfolk. A respected horticulturist, Heutte knew Norfolk’s climate and naturally acidic soils made it the ideal location to grow the evergreen Asian azaleas he saw in Charleston. Some 4,000 were planted.

Azaleas were such a signature plant that the garden was once known as the Norfolk Azalea Gardens, and the city of Norfolk created the International Azalea Festival to honor the countries of NATO. Today, the garden has expanded to 175 acres of year-round beauty and boasts an azalea collection worthy of international recognition.

Take a stroll around Mirror Lake and the Enchanted Forest to experience a breathtaking show of colorful azaleas, many from those original plantings. These woodland gardens are at their peak and resemble an azalea fairyland.

One of the first evergreen azaleas to bloom is Rhododendron simsii “Vittatum,” featuring three color combinations on the same shrub: white blooms striped with purplish red, all-white blooms and all-purplish-red blooms.

Next to bloom are the Kurume hybrids, such as orange-red “Flame,” purplish-red “Hinode Giri” and “Hinomayo,” white “Snow” and coral pink “Kirin” (aka “Coral Bells”).

Southern Indian hybrids, such as lilac-pink “Formosa” and the white purplish-pink with dark blotch “George Lindley Tabor,” closely follow the Kurume hybrids.

Our 84 Satsuki hybrids carry the spring show into May and are featured in the Rhododendron Glade, Enchanted Forest and Mirror Lake.

Virginia is home to six species of native azaleas with three species native to the coastal plain (our neck of the woods). Our native azaleas are deciduous – they lose their leaves in winter – and feature honeysuckle-shaped flowers that are often fragrant. Many native species can tolerate sunnier locations and become more floriferous with increased sun exposure.

One of my favorites is Rhododendron atlanticum, the dwarf coastal azalea. The fragrance is sweet and reminds me of cotton candy. One of the best areas to experience the subtle and alluring beauty of our native azaleas is near the base of Cobblestone Bridge across from Shady Woods.

In the home landscape, evergreen and native azaleas are excellent additions to well-drained woodland gardens. Evergreen azaleas prefer dappled shade and become stressed with too much direct sunlight. Like all spring-flowering shrubs, the best time to prune is immediately after flowering. Wait too long, and you’ll prune off the buds for next year’s bloom. Native azaleas have an open, airy habit and require no pruning.

Interested in the cultural care of azaleas? Check out our azalea pruning class on Tuesday. You also can learn all about azaleas on our-free-with-admission guided azalea tours. Join us May 21 for the celebration of our WPA legacy.