By Wayne Hutchins
Imagine that you are driving down the road in the middle of August and you look in a neighbor’s yard and see a bright brick red native azalea, 10 to 15 feet tall, full of flowers. A mirage? No, because such a plant does exist and grows very well in western North Carolina. The plant in question is a Plumleaf Azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) which can bloom from mid July until early September.
The Plumleaf Azalea is native to the counties along the border between Georgia and Alabama. A mature plant can reach a height of 20 to 25 feet. Blooming in August, this plant does need shade from the hot sun, which could “burn” the flowers when open. Like most azaleas this plant grows very well in acid soils. I have in my garden four Plumleaf Azaleas ranging in height from ten feet to almost twenty five feet. The hardiness rating for this plant is zone 5 to 8.
This plant can be crossed with other native azaleas such as R. arborescens to produce hybrids with various colored flowers that will bloom in July. The addition of this plant to any shade garden gives color at a time in the summer when very few woody plants are in bloom.