Story by Michelle Jameson | Photos courtesy Charles Andrews
Charles Andrews pulled his jeweler’s loupe to his eye and peered at the tiny bud between his fingers.
“See the tiny hairs?” he asked.
The bush looked like a stand of bare twigs, but he could already see the transformation in progress. In the next month, hundreds upon hundreds of native azaleas on his Dawson County property will burst into bloom with shades of yellow, orange, reds and soft pinks painting the wooded landscape.
“Most people don’t realize there are so many varieties of native azaleas out there,” Andrews said.
He should know. Andrews is president of the azalea chapter of the American Rhododendron Society for the Southeastern United States.
The retired Air Force engineer grew up in Canton with a love of all outdoors. Hunting and fishing were a regular part of life for Andrews, and it was on an afternoon of fly fishing that he first took notice of sweet aroma wafting through the air.
“Fishing season runs from April to June, right at the bloom season for azaleas,” he said.
He went in search of the source of the honeysuckle-like aroma and found a large patch of azaleas on the side of the stream.
“There were hundreds of them,” he recalled. “You smelled them way before you could see them.”
It was then that he began his lifelong love affair. He started taking a notebook and camera with him on outings to record all he could find on native azaleas.
Unsatisfied with the lack of information he found, he began to formulate and document his own research.
“I found a lot of what I call ‘broom closet botanists’ who did their research solely going by pictures or dried cuttings instead of in the field. I wanted to know more: What grows here and what doesn’t and which ones were discovered where.”
Fast forward several decades and Andrews has amassed a substantial catalog. Not only can he usually tell you the species of a plant, he can go into a mind-boggling taxonomy lesson on propagation and chromosomes.
“Most plants in general are diploid, meaning they have two complete sets of chromosomes,” he said. “But with hybrids, you can have triploids or tetraploids. Anything above a diploid is usually sterile, so you have to take cuttings or do tissue cultures to propagate. Every so often, you will run across one that is not sterile. We try to save those gene pools.”
Some species grow near other species and hybridize with each other. These natural hybrids have various mixtures of the characteristics of both parents.
The result? An astonishing array of colors and vibrancy.
“The most sought-after color is of the yellow-orange variety,” said Andrews.
Those happenstance hybrids can create some of the more unique bloom colors, like pink with gradient yellow centers and the flame azaleas.
He can delve into the structure of a plant and such things as the microfine hairs that run parallel to the surface of the leaf. Some have smooth stems while others have hairy stems. Unlike their evergreen kin, natives have separate buds for flowers and leaves. Some are bushy while others grow straight up.
Azaleas have tubular funnel or funnel-shaped flowers instead of the bell shaped seen with most evergreen rhododendrons. Azaleas usually have five stamens, or one per lobe, and have five lobes in a flower.
Scientifically speaking, all azaleas are rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas. Azaleas have been reclassified and are now in the genus Rhododendron.
North America has 17 native species of azaleas. They are native to the southeastern United States, except for Rhododendron occidentale and Rhododendron canadense. All are deciduous, meaning they drop all their leaves in the fall.
Andrews said about 12 of the species do quite well in Northeast Georgia. In fact, he said, Georgia has the most native azaleas of any state.
Most people are familiar with the evergreen type of azaleas found at the majority of big-box garden stores. These tend to be the ones used most by landscapers. However, native azaleas are much more suited to our climate, Andrews said.
He jokingly noted he’s a low maintenance kind of person.
“If she dies, she dies,” he said of a plant. “But native azaleas do really well with minimum care and can withstand a lot of our weather conditions.”
They are hardy and can withstand drought conditions better than most, once established. With natives, the roots may go out 12 or so feet instead of just at the drip line.
And they can get pretty tall, which can make them ideal for summer privacy. Plus, they can create a cascade of color. If you choose the right ones, Andrews said, you can enjoy blooms from March to late August.
Native azaleas mix well with many other plants like camellias, hydrangeas, viburnum and hollies, so long as they have at least four hours of sun a day. They tend to bloom less in the shade.
He and his wife Mardi live in south Forsyth County and have a variety of azaleas planted in their yard.
“I have them planted in a row according to bloom time, so there are some in bloom from April through August.”
Clay, Andrews said, is not a good soil for them. Adding in several shovels-full of organic material is a must. They prefer an above-ground planting, meaning the woody base sits just above the soil. Digging a wide hole is more important than a deep one.
“Don’t put a $20 plant in a 20-cent hole,” said Andrews.
And don’t use landscape fabric. They prefer a good soaking as opposed to an occasional sprinkle. Once established, they really don’t need much fertilizing.
Azaleas also have few pest problems. The biggest problem is deer eating the tender shoots. Leaf galls can be an issue, but Andrews recommends just pulling them off.
An avid history buff, Andrews is working on a book about the story behind the native azalea. The rhododendron came over from Asia millions of years ago, possibly when all continents were one known as Pangea. In 1690, the fragrant Virginia Rock Rose azalea was discovered (the source of the intoxicating aroma he smelled as a teen).
In 1775, William Bartram documented the flame azalea around the Elberton area. And in 1903 the plumleaf azalea was recorded.
“I want to know more, like why the coastal azalea wasn’t discovered as a new species until 1917 when it had been around so long,” he said.
He’s also working on a collection of azalea illustrations done before photography.
He has been a member of the American Rhododendron Society since the early ’80s, but only recently became active. Another project is a seed and plant exchange with other chapters in the U.S. and a “plants-for-members” program for varieties not found in nurseries.
“The No. 1 threat to native azaleas is development,” said Andrews. “They come in and clear cut and bulldoze everything without taking the plants into consideration.”
The Georgia Native Plant Society is trying to combat this with a rescue program. Members petition for permission to rescue plants before the heavy equipment rolls in. They can then repurpose the plant or offer it to other members.
The other threat is poaching. “People have dug up so many off the sides of the road that you don’t see them as much as you used to,” he said.
He calls it “coincidental serendipity” that the 500 acres he purchased with his brother for hunting and fishing are loaded with azaleas. He has placed the property under a conservancy so it can never be developed.
The Azalea Chapter of the ARS will hold a plant sale from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. (or until sold) April 22 at the Oak Grove United Methodist Church, 1722 Oak Grove Road, Decatur. On hand will be more than 1,200 native and evergreen azaleas, other rhododendrons, camellias, mountain laurel, pieris and other companion plants, including some herbaceous perennials. They sell fast, so patrons should come early for the best selection.
The group’s prices are lower than anyone else, Andrews said, plus new members to the Azalea Chapter get a discount. The goal is not money but to interest people in plants (and to join the chapter).
Other places to find native azaleas in the greater Atlanta area are the plant sales of other organizations like the various counties’ Master Gardeners, Georgia Botanical Society, Georgia Native Plant Society, Atlanta Botanical Garden, and GSU Perimeter College Native Plant Botanical Garden.