DC, Maryland and Virginia Native Plants: Astounding Azaleas

Add luminous light to your garden.

native azalea color palette

There is no shortage of azaleas in our gardens around the Chesapeake watershed. A riot of color appears on previously unnoticed shrubs. Weeks of bright bloom are synonymous with the finale of spring. These are mostly ornamental Japanese and European azaleas. Ornamental azaleas tend to be evergreen and shaped into low mounds, often planted as foundation plants.


Native azaleas, though, are something else altogether. Airy, tall and graceful, they lend a color palette of luminescent blooms to your garden. Soft shades of pink, rose, orange sherbet and white create a range of pastel spring colors. For vivid color, there is a bright red - orange native azalea that blooms in summer.


Several bloom before the plant leafs out creating an awesome flower display. Some are scented and different types bloom at different times. The native azaleas also have fall color. All native azaleas are deciduous, shedding their leaves for winter. Mature shrubs typically reach 7 to 8 feet in height.

native pink azalea
Pinxterbloom Azalea at Mt. Cuba

Native azaleas add to the garden in many ways. One could be planted as part of a hedge row or screen, at the back of a bed, or as a featured plant. Many will thrive in shadier conditions too.


Experts always say azaleas grow best in partly shaded, moist, acidic soils. We have three types in our garden, all still small and planted about three years ago. They are all doing well though we do not have particularly acidic soils. The first to bloom is the sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens). It's young so there were only three flowers on this small shrub this year. Those three flowers produced an amazing aroma -- so much so, I just moved it near the front door to enjoy that scent coming and going. It just finished flowering. This azalea is described by experts as growing best in moist, acidic soils in shade though it can also be grown in sun and drier soils as ours is.


Our Florida azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) blooms around the same time. While I have not yet noticed any fragrance with our young shrub, this is typically described a a fragrant azalea. Orange is a somewhat unusual spring color for a shrub so it really stands out. Last we have a swamp azalea which flowers later in the year.


The gardens of the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware feature many native azaleas. Their treasure trove of a website gives you the growing conditions, bloom time and fall color for each. Check these out:


Sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens) noted for fragrant white early spring flowers

Pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), pink azalea, grows in dry conditions, spring bloom

Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) noted for soft orange blooms in spring, taller than average

Pink-shell Azalea (Rhododendron vaseyi) noted for early bloom on leafless branches

Piedmont Azalea (Rhododendron canescens) noted by Mt. Cuba as the most versatile, a spring bloomer

Plum leaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) noted for red orange blooms in summer

Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) noted for late summer white blooms

Pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), aka pink azalea, can grow in drier conditions.


There are literally thousands of cultivars of ornamental, or non-native, azaleas. Larger garden centers tend to carry ornamental azaleas and it can be confusing. Some ornamental azaleas, such as 'Delaware Valley White' have names that would make you think they are native though they aren't.


Native azaleas are most widely sold by native plant nurseries. Many native plant nurseries, like Kollar and Direct Native Plants, have native azaleas available now. The flowers are stunning and the shrubs support insects, butterflies and moths. There is nothing not to like! Time to add an azalea or two?

native azalea bloom
Pinxterbloom azalea in Mclean, VA (Shutterstock)


















We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

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Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.