Azaleas have a long and vibrant horticultural history. These small to medium woody flowering shrubs are venerated in both Asia and the Americas for their captivating spring blooms. Azaleas originated on the mountain slopes of Asia before being introduced in Europe and beyond. This article will delve into the history of azaleas.
What are Azaleas?
Azaleas are a group of plants within the larger rhododendron genus, which consists of more than 1,000 individual varieties of woody flowering shrubs and trees. Azaleas are lauded for their gorgeous spring flowers, especially in the Southeastern United States. These shrubs can be either deciduous or evergreen.
Azaleas are distinguished from other rhododendrons by their more delicate leaves and five stamens rather than ten. Azaleas also form smaller plants on average than other rhododendrons. Azaleas also produce more stems and their flowers emerge in bunches of three from the tips of each branch.
Classification of Azaleas
Up until approximately 2005, azaleas were considered to be a different species from rhododendrons. However, deeper botanical studies discovered that azaleas only had minor differences and could be reclassified into the wider rhododendron species.
Azalea species are now distributed across several subgenera in the wider rhododendron group. The main two subgroups are Petanthera, which generally encompasses deciduous azaleas, and Tsutsuji, which mainly covers evergreen azaleas.
History of Azaleas
Azaleas originated in Asia, where these shrubs have a long, storied history. These shrubs were cultivated for several reasons including medicinal uses, religion, and enjoyment. One 8th Century Chinese poet, Bai Juyi, adored cultivating azaleas. These shrubs were also tended to by Buddhist monks in several monasteries.
Eventually, azaleas were introduced to European horticulturalists through trade. In 1680, several Japanese azalea varieties were brought to Dutch gardeners. Other European nations such as England, France, and Germany quickly embraced these new shrubs.
Azaleas were eagerly received and cultivated for centuries before being introduced to North America. This happened in the 1830s, and the first azaleas in America were planted in Charleston, South Carolina.
The site for this moment of horticultural history was Middleton Place Gardens, which remains the oldest cultivated garden in the United States. The introduction of azaleas began a long association between these spectacular shrubs and the American South.
It seemed that azaleas thrived in the acidic soil throughout many Southern states. Now, over 25 azalea species are considered native to the US. Several azalea festivals are held every year to celebrate these plants, especially in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Azaleas typically take centre stage during the yearly Master’s Golf tournament at Augusta in Georgia.
As azaleas became more widespread, horticulturalists across the globe began rearing new cultivars and hybrids. Some azalea varieties were combined with other types of rhododendrons to create new plants. To date, there are over 10,000 known cultivars.
Azalea Meaning & Symbolism
Because azaleas have been prized by many different cultures across the world, these shrubs have developed many symbolic representations. A few nations or regions around the world use azaleas as a local or national symbol.
Along with other rhododendrons, azaleas are the National Flowers of Nepal. The azalea is also the State Wildflower for the southern state of Georgia in the US. The Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has also adopted the azalea as one of the symbols of the city.
In addition to geographical symbolism, azaleas also have various cultural and social significance. In Chinese culture, azaleas are thought to symbolise thoughtfulness as well as womanhood. The Victorians associated azaleas with prudence and temperance.
Strangely, azaleas could also be used to deliver a threat. It’s thought that gifting someone a group of azaleas in a black vase was considered to be a death threat. This is due to azaleas being highly toxic to both humans and animals.
Because of their wide range of colours, azaleas can also be used to send other messages. Pink azaleas can represent positivity and kindness, while orange azaleas represent joy and success. White azaleas symbolise purity, while yellow azaleas are a symbol of friendship.
Azaleas have also been used in some cultures as drugs – both medicinal and recreational. Since the 18th Century, Turkish cultures have created so-called “mad honey” by feeding bees nectar derived from azaleas. The hallucinogenic compounds in the nectar are processed by the bees to create drug-induced honey. This has medicinal purposes but can also be fatal.
Even though azaleas create dramatic floral displays, these shrubs actually don’t require too much hands-on care. Let’s cover some of the basics of azalea care.
Azaleas grow best in slightly acidic growing mediums. A pH range that sits between 4.5 and 6.0 is ideal. Any soil used for azaleas needs to be pre-prepared with some organic components. A range of acidic materials such as the bark and needles from conifers or pines works well, as does leaf mould.
To provide good nutrients for azaleas, use ericaceous compost as it contains the required acidity. Mulching performs two functions for azaleas – it adds nutrients and preserves moisture. Azaleas prefer their soil to be kept consistently moist and should never be allowed to dry out completely. Mulching helps avoid this issue.
In their indigenous habitats on the forested slopes of Asia, azaleas receive indirect or dappled sunlight in shadier locations. This should be replicated in domestic locations. Some direct morning sun works well, but direct afternoon sun can burn azalea leaves.