Native azaleas

Native azaleas are rangy plants that flower before they leaf out, but are stunning in white, pink, yellow, gold and even red colors. 

There are some interesting experiences worth having, but not often. Eating hot peppers and poking myself in the eye come to mind.

Not that I don’t enjoy the gustatory volcano and its subsequent endorphin bliss or seeing shooting stars in a temporarily blinded eye, but I appreciate both being temporary.

Which sometimes leads me to be referred to dubiously called a garden curmudgeon, because I occasionally rail against overplanted garden exhibitionists.

Don’t get me wrong, I love azaleas. Really. As a teenager working at a wholesale plant nursery and later at retail garden centers I helped propagate thousands from cuttings, offloaded others from wholesale trucks and stuffed countless more into car trunks and landscapes.

Like a handful of other equally eye-poking flowering showoffs, including snowball Viburnums, wisteria, dogwoods, mophead French Hydrangeas and crape myrtles, they are stop-in-your-tracks gorgeous. Those few garden critics who say I don’t love them dearly simply misjudge my point, which is that when these blousy beauties show up, myriad other not-so-floriferous beauties simply fade into the background.

Reminds me of Skippy and Daphne, the “fun girls” from Mt. Pilot in the old Andy Griffith TV program. They were well-meaning, but every time they showed up in Mayberry, three things happened: they jazzed things up (with innocent Andy and Barney usually in trouble), then they quickly left town, but meanwhile the quiet attractive, intelligent, hard-working, civic-minded Thelma Lou and Helen felt ... well, a little dowdy.

Isn’t this what azaleas do to otherwise outstanding Lady Banks rose, Indian hawthorn, Spirea, Kerria, Japanese maple and other more subdued flowering shrubs? Azaleas and snowballs show up all too briefly, poke us in the eye, then disappear into the background as big green meatballs.

Oh, there are some outstanding ones, for sure, mostly big Southern Indica hybrids, medium Kurumes and diminutive Gumpos, and repeat blooming Encores. Without a doubt they banish Winter and make Spring pop, especially when planted with a dogwood and wisteria. They get our juices going, in a big way.

However, Michael Pollan hit the nail on its head in his “Botany of Desire” book’s premise, which states that some plants, unable to spread themselves around botanically, lure gardeners into becoming “human bumblebees” to constantly improve, propagate and plant. Azaleas use their colorful but sterile flowers to coerce people to buy and plant them all over the place.

I can just say no to them, like I can that third beer or extra helping of mac n’ cheese. If I want to be blinded by azaleas, all I have to do is look across the street. So let someone else take care of the mostly-boring party girl shrubs just for a quickie fling with springtime bling.

Me, I savor subdued true beauties that inspire and comfort. Instead of blinding but finicky dogwoods, I treasure my nearly-as-beautiful and much-easier-to-grow native “silverbells” (Halesia) and hummingbird-laden red buckeye.

And the most delicious native spring shrub of all, our incredible (and fragrant) native deciduous azaleas. My horticulturist great-grandmother Pearl, a 1935 charter garden club member, caught flak from trend-following others for cherishing what they called “those old wild honeysuckles” along with other native wildflowers.

Native azaleas are rangy plants that flower before they leaf out but are stunning in white, pink, yellow, gold and even red colors. And when I took some in a vase to a talk last week, I had to roll down my truck windows to keep from swooning from their heady sweet fragrance.

Like Mardi Gras beads and other bling, I love garden party fun girls. But this April Fool treasures the demure next-door girls more.

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to

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