Dress Up Your Central Florida Landscape with Azaleas

Bright, breathtaking azalea shrubs in bloom are a welcome sign of spring in Central Florida! Although we fortunately don’t have winter gloom to dispel, there’s something special about the azalea’s showy flowers that lift the spirits and makes us extra glad to live here this time of year! Florida azaleas bloom from late February to early April, depending on cultivar and seasonal variation.

If you’re admiring the azaleas in your neighbors’ yards and notice that your landscape is lacking this personality-plus plant, here’s how you can add an azalea or two – or more – to enhance the premises. Once you become more familiar with the versatility they offer, you’ll likely find even more locations for azalea shrubs around your property!

Azalea Cultivars and Where to Plant Them

We’ll start with a few basics about azaleas. All types are perennial flowering shrubs that will last for many years with proper care. They are a subspecies of the rhododendron family, numbering over 8,000 different types! University of Florida IFAS Gardening Solutions lists a few of the most popular.

Evergreen azaleas – These azaleas hold their leaves year-round, making them ideal backdrop plants for seasonal flower beds. And of course in the spring, they put on their own spectacular show with flowers ranging in color from white, to pink, to red, depending on the cultivar. Evergreen azaleas have many other uses in the landscape, including borders, hedges and around trees.

One popular evergreen cultivar is ‘George Lindley Tabor’, a variety that produces countless soft pink flowers each spring and grows to about 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Its profuse blooms are so plentiful and large that they completely hide the foliage – and its wide spread produces an impressive effect when used in mass plantings. ‘George Tabor’ is classified as a Southern Indica hybrid, a type favored by gardeners for its vigor and tolerance of colder temperatures without experiencing serious damage.

Other favorite Southern Indica hybrids include ‘Brilliant’ (carmine red flowers), ‘Formosa’ (brilliant rose purple flowers), and ‘Mrs. G. G. Gerbing’ (white flowers). The ‘Little John’ cultivar is also popular, due to its unique burgundy foliage and deep red flowers.

Satsuki hybrids are mid-sized azaleas, typically growing about 5 or 6 feet high within 10 or 15 years. They come in a range of colors from white to pink, yellowish pink, red, reddish orange and purple, often with patterning on the petals. Popular cultivars include ‘Flame Creeper’ (orange-red flowers) and ‘Gumpo’ (white or pink flowers).

For smaller-scale plantings, Kurume hybrids can be a good choice, since they grow from 3 to 5 feet tall depending on the variety. Kurume hybrids produce pink, red, purple or white flowers that are smaller in size than those of the Southern Indica hybrids but no less plentiful.

True dwarf varieties are also available, including the charming ‘Red Ruffle’ cultivar, which grows 2 to 3 feet tall.

Native azaleas – Actually, most of the evergreen azaleas growing in Florida home landscapes are hybrids, and originally came from Asia. Native azaleas are also known as bush honeysuckle. They have smaller flowers and a more delicate appearance, but are very fragrant – whereas non-natives have no fragrance.

Native azaleas bloom around the same time as other azaleas, with colors just as stunning, ranging from pink to peach to yellow. Many new cultivars are being developed with flowers that bloom at specific times.

The native azalea will slowly grow up to 10 feet tall and will lose its leaves in the winter. Natives like the Florida flame azalea (R. austrinum) are increasingly popular. It produces flowers that can range in color from white or pale yellow to orange-red flowers. It will grow up to 8 or 10 feet tall and spreads out more loosely than many of the commonly grown non-native cultivars.

Another deciduous azalea that is native to Florida (R. canescens) goes by a number of common names including pink pinxter azalea, Piedmont azalea, and bush honeysuckle. This shrub can grow between 6 and 15 feet tall and produces fragrant, showy pink flowers in early spring, typically when the leaves first appear.

Although it may seem that azaleas are everywhere, there are optimum places to plant them. Their shallow root system and low tolerance to poor soil drainage make placement and care important. They perform best in areas with filtered sunlight. Partial shade under pine trees or strategically spaced hardwoods provides conditions for healthy growth and optimum flowering; dense shade reduces both. However, different types of azaleas can handle more sun than others. Check the plant tag when buying to learn what’s recommended for each variety.

Azalea Care and Feeding

Fortunately, azaleas aren’t high-maintenance plants, but they do have some requirements if you want them to achieve maximum fullness and blooms. According to University of Florida IFAS Extension, well-drained, organic soils with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5 are best suited for azaleas.

“Organic amendments and fertilization are usually needed to modify Florida soils for proper azalea growth. Fertilizers, organic amendments, and pH-adjusting amendments should be incorporated into the planting bed or soil backfill during planting.

“Preparation of the entire planting area is best when a number of azaleas are being transplanted together. Organic amendments–such as peat, compost, or pine bark – help increase water and nutrient retention and lower the soil pH. A soil test will determine the pH of your existing soil and provide a basis for fertilizer recommendations.

“Ample quantities of iron and other micronutrients may not be available in soils with a pH higher than 5.5. You can modify soils with a pH higher than 5.0 using applications of elemental sulfur. Excessive rates will injure plant roots, so apply no more than 1 pound of sulfur per 100 square feet of planting at one time, and apply sulfur no more than two or three times a year. Dolomitic lime should be incorporated to raise the pH of soils with a pH lower than 4.5. Soil adjustment should be made based on a recent soil test.”

Generally, established plants should be watered every 10 to 14 days during dry periods to wet the soil to a depth of 14 to 18 inches.

As for pruning, always prune in late spring or early summer, shortly after flowering, because azaleas set their flower buds for next year during the summer. Prune too late and chances increase that you will remove flower buds. Several light prunings early in the growing season will help your azalea develop the nicest form. Remove shaded-out branches first, since these often become dead wood. Older plants may have tall leggy branches that need to be removed. Doing so gradually over several years reduces shock to the plant.

Mulching can add a nice touch to your azalea shrubs – as well as other shrubs, flower beds and around trees. Moreover – as do all ornamental plants – azaleas benefit from mulching, which keeps the soil moist and cool while discouraging weeds. Add 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch. Pine straw is recommended in Florida, because azaleas prefer more acidity than most general landscape plants.

Azalea Insect Pests and Diseases

As hardy as azalea shrubs appear to be, unfortunately, they’re still susceptible to insect pests and diseases. University of Florida IFAS Extension provides the following list of insect culprits.

Lace Bugs – These are sucking insects found on the underside of the leaf. The top surface of the injured leaf appears speckled or mottled. Two applications of recommended insecticides at 10-day intervals sprayed on the lower surface of the leaf effectively controls lace bugs.

Leafminers and leafrollers – These pests feed on azalea leaves during their larval stage. Two applications of a recommended insecticide at seven- to 10-day intervals will control leafminers. Leafrollers can be controlled by two applications of a labeled insecticide at 14-day intervals.

Spider mites – Spider mite injury appears as a bronzing or rusty coloration of green leaves. A mite infection can be verified by placing a white piece of paper beneath the foliage and slapping the leaves with your hand. Mites can be detected on the white paper as moving, small red or brown specks. Two applications of a recommended miticide at five- to seven-day intervals will provide acceptable control.

Scale insects – Several species of scale insects can be found on azaleas. Some have a white cottony appearance; others are covered with a hard shell. Scales suck the sap from azaleas, resulting in yellow or unthrifty leaves. Two foliar applications of a recommended insecticide at two-week intervals applied during early stages of scale development provide adequate control.

Stem borers – In the larvae stage, they tunnel into stem and branch tips during late spring and early summer. The young stem will wilt and die back to where the tunnel ends. The best way to control stem borers is to remove infested branches and then apply a properly labeled insecticide. Fungicide and insecticide recommendations are available through your county Extension office.

Common diseases affecting azalea shrubs include the following:

Petal blight – This fungus is most severe during cool, moist weather. Infection first appears as small, white spots on colored petals or rust-colored spots on white flowered varieties. Spots enlarge rapidly into irregular blotches under moist conditions, causing the blossoms to “melt” into a slimy mass.

Affected blossoms dry and may remain or drop from the plants. The fungus survives in dried blossoms on or in the soil. Removing and burning surface mulch and dead flowers three to four weeks before bloom will reduce disease incidence. Directed ground sprays of a recommended fungicide one month before bloom will provide some control.

Leaf gall – This condition occurs during wet spring months and is most severe on densely shaded plantings with poor air circulation. Galls may occur on the leaves, stem, or flowers. Small numbers of galls can be handpicked and destroyed at first appearance. Large plantings should be protected by fungicide sprays starting at budbreak and continuing every 10 days as needed.

The Take-Home Message

Instead of envying your neighbors this year, adding azaleas to your Central Florida landscape will pay off beautifully in dramatic bursts of color and a functional definition of space when used as a hedge, border, or a backdrop for bedding plants. And if you’re fortunate enough to already have azalea shrubs in your yard, you’ve hopefully learned a few tips for improving their care! You may even decide to plant some more!

However, if you’re not the green thumb type but still want your property to be a source of pride and the neighborhood jewel, call Daniel’s Lawn Care & Pressure Washing to design, plant and even maintain the yard of your dreams!

Our full-service company provides landscape design, tree installation, tree trimming, yard maintenance, pressure washing and so much more. Contact us today so we can do the work, and you can do the enjoying! We proudly serve all of Central Florida – including Orlando, Sanford, Longwood and Lake Mary! We look forward to helping you achieve your goals and bring your vision to life!