One of our prettiest (and rarest) of the southeastern USA's native azaleas is Chapman's rhododendron. Click here to download a large version of this image for a closer look at this pretty pink beauty.
Chapman's rhododendron is an evergreen shrub that gets up to 4-10 ft (1-3 m) tall and about as wide. It has an open habit with stiff, slightly ascending branches. The dark green leaves are elliptic, rather tough and leathery, and range from about an inch (2.5 cm) to two inches (5 cm) in length. The flowers, appearing before new growth begins in spring, are rose-pink and exceedingly beautiful. They are funnel shaped, about 2 in (5 cm) wide and borne in clusters. Wild azalea enthusiasts have introduced a handful of named selections and hybrids.
Location Rhododendron chapmanii occurs naturally only in Florida. It is known in the wild from just five counties in the central Panhandle around Tallahassee, and a single location (possibly introduced) in Clay County in the northern Peninsula. The species occurs on wooded slopes in the transition areas between pine flatwoods and shrub wetlands. Some authorities consider Chapman's rhododendron to be a variety of the more wide ranging Piedmont rhododendron (Rhododendron minus), which occurs in six southeastern states.
Culture Light: Chapman's rhododendron grows naturally in areas with filtered sunlight. Moisture: This wild azalea likes a moist, acidic soil, but not one that is waterlogged. Hardiness: USDA Zones 7-9. Propagation: Most of out native azaleas are difficult to propagate vegetatively, and this one is no exception. Cuttings of soft, fast growing stem tips can be rooted in spring (with luck), and seeds can be planted when ripe in summer (usually with better results).
When it blooms in May, the Chapman's rhododendron is the center of attention in Steve's native shrub collection.
Chapman's rhododendron is one of the most beautiful of the southeastern U.S. native azaleas. It is the only native azalea in Florida that has evergreen foliage, and one of just three species (out of a dozen or so) in the southeastern U.S. with evergreen leaves. A woodland garden with wild azaleas is one of the most charming of gardens, and surely deserves to include this lovely species. I have about a half dozen species of wild azaleas in a semi-shady area at the edge of the lawn, and when the Chapman's is in flower, it gets everyone's attention. Like most members of the genus, Chapman's rhododendron requires an acidic soil, protection from midday sun, and the soil should not be allowed to dry out completely. Rhododendrons have shallow roots and suffer when they have to compete with other nearby plants. Avoid disturbing the soil around rhododendron roots.
Chapman's rhododendron, whether referred to as Rhododendron chapmanii or Rhododendron minus var. chapmanii, is listed by both the U.S. Department of Interior and the State of Florida as an Endangered Species. It is a distinctive species (or variety), with a very limited distribution, and subject to habitat loss. It may not be transported across state lines without a permit. However, the species is readily available from several in-state native nurseries, where it has been propagated artificially, but not collected from the wild.
What's the difference between an azalea and a rhododendron? There are no specific botanical differences between rhododendrons and azaleas that do not have exceptions. Rhododendrons usually have flowers with 10 stamens and azaleas usually have five stamens. Rhododendrons usually have small scales on the undersides of their leaves; azaleas do not. Nearly all rhododendrons have evergreen leaves, but azaleas can be either deciduous or evergreen. The native American species with evergreen leaves are rhododendrons, and those with deciduous leaves are azaleas. Some Asiatic species with evergreen leaves are also azaleas, having five stamens and no leaf scales. Rhododendrons tend to be larger than azaleas, with larger leaves and larger flowers. Rhododendrons usually have flowers that are bell shaped, whereas azaleas usually have funnel shaped flowers. They're all in the same genus, so they're all Rhododendron in the final analysis.