While most of the azaleas in my neighborhood have had an early first bloom, if you visit a forested wetland in our area right now you might be treated with the delicate blossoms of one of our native azaleas. On a recent Panhandle Outdoors LIVE trip to the swamp boardwalk at Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Rhododendron canescens were in bloom through the filtered sunlight of three-story tall sweet bay and swamp tupelo trees.Often referred to as the honeysuckle azalea, the long, arching stamens of this shrub will remind passersby of honeysuckle flowers. The native blooms are not as densely packed as the cultivated varieties, but their pink flowers are just as eye-catching. There are several other varieties of native azalea, including 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 beauty has also 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 ornamentals. Be sure you purchase them from reputable dealers that are not collecting from the wild.