The Elegant Azalea
No plant better represents the gentile elegance of Wakulla County than the azalea. The varieties of colors, relative ease of propagation and its acclamation to most of this county make it a popular home landscape plant.
Azaleas enhance the home landscape either as foundation or mass plantings. They may be used as background or foreground plants, depending on their terminal size.
Some cultivars can be pruned into single-trunk that will serve as specimen plants. Usually their open and relaxed growth habit is more suited to informal landscape designs.
Spectacular flowers and shade tolerance are among the many reasons for the azalea’s popularity as a landscape plant in north Florida. Unfortunately, azaleas are not successful in coastal areas where alkaline soils, salt drift, or saline irrigation water are found.
Azaleas adapted to Florida require four to eight weeks of temperatures below 50°F. They generally begin to bloom between late February and early April when warm temperatures follow this chilling period.
Sporadic flowering, caused by milder winter temperature fluctuation, is not common north Florida. However, this winter is the exception and some Wakulla County azaleas were blooming in late January.
Azaleas belong to the genus Rhododendron. Most evergreen species are native to eastern Asia and most deciduous species originated in North America.
Azaleas perform best in areas with filtered sunlight. Their shallow root system and low tolerance to drought and poor soil drainage make placement and care important.
Dappled or partial shade provides the best conditions for healthy growth and optimum flowering. Most do best when protected from intense afternoon sun. Dense shade has the potential to reduce plant growth and flowering.
Azaleas exposed directly to early morning sun after a hard freeze will thaw too rapidly and bark splitting will occur. The death of branches with split bark may not follow until months after the injury.
Well-drained, acidic soils with a pH of 4.5 to 6.0 are best suited for azaleas because they prefer the ample quantities of iron and other micronutrients which are readily available in acidic soils. Soil pH can be determined with a soil test and kits with instructions are available at the UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office.
When azaleas are established in soils with a pH higher than 6.0, they often develop a micronutrient deficiency, most typically iron, which exhibits on new growth as yellowing between the leaf veins. These deficiencies can be treated as needed with foliar sprays containing micronutrients.
Soils pH can be temporarily lowered and made more acidic by applying elemental sulfur. No more than one pound of sulfur per 100 square feet of planting should be applied at one time because excessive rates injure the plant’s roots. Apply sulfur no more than three times annually.
When a group of azaleas are being transplanted together, the entire planting bed can be improved by adding organic matter, such as peat, compost, or pine bark. These amendments increase moisture and nutrient retention and lower soil pH.
Pruning is necessary to obtain a full, well-branched azalea. Several light prunings just after flowering and continuing through the growing season result in a compact, denser plant.
Flower buds are initiated in late spring and early summer, long before they can be seen, so pruning should cease in midsummer about July 4, an easy date to remember. Pruning after this date likely decreases the number flowers the following spring.
Established plants should receive about ¾–1 inch of water every 10 to 14 days during dry periods. This wets the soil to a depth of 10–12 inches and insures ample moisture if sufficient mulch is present over the root zone.
Irrigation is necessary for successful azalea establishment and optimum growth, especially during extended dry periods. Plants transplanted during the dry season into sandy soils require watering two to three times a week until they become established.
Frequent and light fertilizer applications are often necessary in Florida’s sandy soils. An acid-forming fertilizer containing iron and other micronutrients (sometimes sold as an “Azalea Special Fertilizer”) should be applied as needed.
To learn more about growing azaleas in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or at http://wakulla.ifas.ufl.edu/