Spring is a lovely season to visit gardens in Georgia. Blooms are abundant, and temperatures are usually mild. Favorite shrubs and trees include daffodils, dogwoods, azaleas, viburnums, mountain laurel and rhododendrons.
At Gibbs Gardens, there are hundreds of azaleas and rhododendrons blooming from early spring through summer. Some are deciduous (they lose their leaves at the end of the growing season and new foliage appears in spring), while others are evergreen. Certain varieties are ever-blooming like the Encore series, which flowers over a period of months.
For the purpose of clarification, it helps to know that all azaleas belong to the genus Rhododendron, but not all rhododendrons are azaleas. For example, the popular piedmont azalea, Rhododendron canescens, is a type of native azalea. In spring, it offers delightfully spicy sweet flowers that appear on bare branches before the new foliage emerges. Mature specimens may reach 10 feet to 15 feet tall over time.
Tried and true hybrid evergreen azaleas for Southern gardens include Indica, Kurume, Kaempferi and the Encore series. Southern Indica azaleas typically have large flowers and leaves. Popular selections include ‘Mrs. G.G. Gerbing’ with white flowers, ‘George L. Tabor’ with orchid-pink flowers and ‘Formosa’ with magenta flowers.
In late April, the native flame azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum arrives on the scene with striking flowers that range from yellow to orange to scarlet.
Later in May or early June, the air is filled with the perfume of the swamp azalea, Rhododendron viscousum. This native tolerates wet soils but will grow happily in average garden soils, provided it gets regular water.
A perennial favorite of both humans and butterflies is Rhododendron prunifolium, the plumleaf azalea with stunning red to bright orange blooms that appear in late July to August. Plants can easily grow to heights of 15 feet or taller.
Large leaf evergreen rhododendrons are not the first plant that comes to mind for Southern gardens, but with the right location and adequate moisture, there are a number of selections, both native and exotic, that thrive. A few stalwart selections are listed below. When possible, look for “Iron Clad selections.” These are well suited to tolerate the extreme heat and humidity we experience in the South.
Rhododendron “Anna Rose Whitney” – deep pink flowers
Rhododendron ‘Janet Blair’ – pink, cream and gold flowers
Rhododendron ‘Nova Zembla’ – deep red flowers, almost bluish red
Rhododendron ‘Roseum Elegans’ – lavender pink flowers
Rhododendron ‘Scintillation’ – pink flowers
For the best effect in your own garden, combine native and ornamental rhododendrons with other plants, including hydrangeas and Japanese maples.
Consider color, texture, form and fragrance, too. With some thought and planning, your garden can offer fabulous flowers for months.
Visit Gibbs Gardens this month to see these brilliant blooms and enjoy a number of special events, including Mother’s Day Brunch in a Box and strolling musicians on May 8, an arts and crafts show May 14-15, and the Twilight “Live” Music Series May 21 and 28. Find the full calendar online.
Erica Glasener is the marketing manager for Gibbs Gardens. A horticulturist, author and lecturer, Erica was the award-winning host of HGTV’s “A Gardener’s Diary” for 14 years. Erica is the author of “Proven Plants: Southern Gardens.” She is also the co-author with Walter Reeves of “Getting Started with Gardening in Georgia,” and “Month-by-Month Gardening in Georgia,” revised edition.