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Volume 14, Issue 17 ~ April 27 - May 3, 2006

Earth Journal by Gary Pendleton

Maryland’s Native Azaleas Rare Beauties

Azaleas (Rhododendron) Showy, funnel shaped flowers, one-half to two inches wide. Stamens and style conspicuous. Heath Family.

—Newcombs Wildflower Guide

I spent some of my growing up years in Azalea City, also known as Takoma Park, Maryland.

Once upon a time, it might have been the 1950s, people in Tacky Park and other places went crazy over azaleas. It seemed as if every house had the spring-blooming shrubs.

The garden-variety azaleas are evergreen, compact and slow growing. They produce dense blooms of white and red. The colors are rich and deep. The reasons for their popularity are obvious, though I suspect they are not as popular as they might once have been. Perhaps they have become a bit old fashioned.

If you wander from the landscaped yards into the woods, among the oaks and hickories, you might find the showy, funnel-shaped flowers of the native azaleas that Lawrence Newcomb described in his authoritative field guide. That is if you go at the right time of year. They grow on spindly shrubs that, to the non-botanist, do not resemble the domestic kinds. While the flowers are showy and conspicuous, the native shrub is fairly anonymous when not in bloom.

Pink azalea, or Pinxter, is one of the species that grows locally. The native azaleas are deciduous, not evergreen. Pinxter’s growth habit is looser and airier than the garden kind, and the flower displays are not so thick and abundant. At the risk of seeming overly academic, the bud tips are “somewhat mucronate,” according to Woody Plants of Maryland; the authors go on to say that the “twigs are finely stigrose when young, often nearly glabrous when mature.” But you really must see for yourself. Pinxter can be found state wide; it blooms in April and May.

Dwarf azalea, another Maryland native, grows mainly in the eastern part of the state where soils are sandy. Swamp azalea grows statewide in wet areas. Both swamp and dwarf have white flowers. Flame azalea only grows at the highest elevations in Maryland, far away from Bay country. They are, to my taste, the most spectacular.

The late Brown brothers, Russel and Melvin, who co-wrote Woody Plants of Maryland, mentioned that Pinxter, Flame and Dwarf make excellent ornamentals and should be more widely used. I agree. The Maryland Native Plant Society’s website,, can help you find a nursery source for these beautiful natives.

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