Weekly “What is it?”: Native Azaleas
From a distance, native azaleas are easily mistaken for honeysuckle vines. With long, arching stamens, you might be tempted to relive your childhood, hoping to pull the pistil from the bottom and find a single drop of sweetness on the end. Instead, upon close observation you will encounter an equally pleasurable but distinctly different scent. The wild Rhododendron canescens, known variously as a mountain, piedmont, or honeysuckle azalea, can range in flower color from white to deep pink. In northwest Florida, you will find it on the edges of swamps, or as I did on the sunny fringes of wooded areas with rich, moist soil. It is in bloom right now (March), along with its cousins, the white-blooming swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) and the brilliant orange Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum).
Native azalea populations have declined due to wetland habitat loss, and their delightful smell and delicate flowers have made them susceptible to overcollection. Due to these factors, the Florida flame azalea is listed on the state endangered species list and wild azaleas should never be removed from their habitat. Native azalea species attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and are often planted in home landscapes as ornamental shrubs. Be sure you purchase them from reputable dealers that are not collecting from the wild.