Azaleas Herald Our Spring
They're quietly functional much of the year, content to pass unnoticed as hedges and to substitute for the grass that won't grow beneath oak trees. But with the first warm days of February, they shake off their plain cloaks and burst into brocades of violet-kissed pinks and crackling red-oranges. Lake Placid has caladiums, Tallahassee has camellias, and the Tampa Bay area has its blaze of azalea blossoms. "You see a lot up in Dade City. We have fun driving down the roads up there and looking at the huge displays," says Rob Gamester, whose backyard is currently an azalea festival."We could have gotten a green hedge, a ligustrum or something like that. But we thought, 'Why not get something that will flower?' We've been very, very happy with them." Though Rob and his wife, Fran, have had their azaleas since 1987, they're still full of surprises. Fran learned that on Valentine's Day, when Rob picked her a huge bouquet of red ruffles. There are more than 800 azalea species and hybrids, members of the genus Rhododendron. The evergreens are Asia natives; the North American natives are deciduous. They like filtered sun and thrive in the vicinity of oak trees, whose leaves give the soil the slightly acidic flavor azaleas crave. "Azaleas have shallow roots, so to make sure they get enough water with water restrictions, we heavily mulch with oak leaves," Rob says, noting mulch should be kept away from the trunk of the bush. He trims and prunes when they're done blooming, usually in March, but never after July, when the flower buds are starting. Some of the North American hybrids don't flower well in Florida because the winters don't get cold enough. (Find a great list of varieties for Florida at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/MG019.) Ours need a few weeks of temperatures below 50 degrees to wake up the buds, which then wait until it's warm to flower. "The colder it is, the longer it takes to bloom," Fran Gamester says. "They want to think it's spring." And no matter what the calendar says, it's spring in Tampa when the azaleas bloom. Fuschia Formosa The most popular variety in Florida, according to the University of Florida's list of azalea varieties, Formosa is a vigorous grower. In the Gamesters' yard, it forms a hedge that camouflages a chain-link fence. When he prunes, Rob takes the height down to the top of the fence. Pink Formosa Formosa hybrids are available in a variety of colors, from pale pink to intense purple. The flowers are about 31/2 inches in diameter and the bushes can grow quite large. Red Ruffles With their vibrant color and frilly petals, the Gamesters' dwarf Red Ruffles azaleas are eye-catchers whether they're in the shade of an oak or in a vase in the living room. They're said to have the most striking red hue of all the Southern azaleas. George Taber The shy pink blush of these dwarf George Tabers is a nice contrast to the neighboring Red Ruffles.