Rhododendron Prunifolium

Hummingbirds have been seen visiting the reddish-orange flowers frequently. (The only capture of this rapturous event is the signal my eyes send to my brain.) It is the last of the deciduous azaleas, my signature plants, to bloom.

The *it* is Rhododendron prunifolium, the plumleaf azalea. Native to Southwestern Georgia and Eastern Alabama in the Chattahoochee River Valley, it is having the best year ever in 2012.

Our Rhododendron prunifolium was purchased at the University of Tennessee Bloom Day plant sale in 2008 as a nice sized specimen. The blooming each summer has been less than spectacular, until this year. We are pleased to see it is rising up to meet its full potential. It is considered the rarest azalea in the Eastern US and is now classified as Threatened, being considered for Endangered by the federal government.

The orange to vivid red flowers open in late summer, an unusual time for Rhododendron species, and measure 1.5 to nearly 2 inches across. Flower buds for the next season are usually formed before the current season’s blossoms open.

The flowers, in a raceme of four to seven, have stamens which are very long and project beyond the flower. My sniffer detected a very slight fragrance.

Henry T. Skinner wrote of his 1951 search for Rhododendron prunifolium in Southwest Georgia that these late, red-orange azaleas are “situated in a region where the clays of the rising coastal plain have been cut into deep gullies by small meandering streams. The sites are often so steep that the only access is by wading the stream, and one is almost forced to do this (in spite of the water moccasins) by the dense cat-briar tangles of the surroundings.” I am glad ours is more easily viewed.

Rhododendron prunifolium, the plumleaf azalea, is a large shrub or small tree of 15 feet (4.5 m) or more at maturity. Its USDA hardiness rating is 7A, some sites say it is hardy to zone 5, to 9B. It likes more moisture than my own steep clay slope offers in most summers. The buds opened this year in mid July and have continued into August.

In my garden, the leaves are a more pale green than the other deciduous azaleas along the Azalea Walk, including one other summer bloomer, R. ‘Summer Lyric’. The flowers are nearly neon in their intensity and in the early morning garden perusal, they resemble traffic lights. The hummingbirds obey and stop for a visit.


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16 Responses to Rhododendron Prunifolium

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    WOW this is a real handsome flower. I can’t imagine it being 15′ tall. That would be a stunner. I bet I have a spot it would be happy in IF it would grow here. If our winters continue to warm it probably would. Have a great weekend.

    Hi Lisa, thanks. At first I could not imagine the decidusous azaleas being that large, but some of them are already nearing that height and will have to be pruned back a bit so every one has enough room. This plum leaf was already 5 feet tall when I bought it and has grown slowly. That is the way they do, very slow growth for a few years, then they take off. You too, have a wonderful weekend, my friend.

  2. Meta says:

    Wonderful, rich color. Hope you are able to propogate some since they are that rare.

    Thanks Meta. Not only the color, which is like a day-glo orange, but the time of bloom make this azalea outstanding. I will leave the propagation to those who are skilled at it, my efforts have been total failures. There are folks around me who have been successful, though, a good thing.

  3. Valerie says:

    What a gorgeous bloom. How wonderful that you have this rare plant in your garden.

    Thanks Valerie. I did not know it was rare when I bought it, but am happy it is doing well here, finally.

  4. Carol says:

    That’s pretty. I love when rare plants are carefully propagated and made available to gardeners.

    Thanks Carol. The UT plant sale often has unusual and rare natives for sale. This one was a lucky find.

  5. Mark and Gaz says:

    Now that is another beauty! Amazing colours on those blooms, looks so warm and exotic!

    Thanks Mark and Gaz. The colors are neon, they glow in the dark.

  6. Layanee says:

    That color will heat up the summer even more. A beautiful bloom.

    Thanks Layanee. The color is bright, it looks mighty fine against the darker Chamaecyparis, too.

  7. Gail says:

    That is a beauty and wowzer on the brilliant color. How wonderful to have an azalea bloom this late in the season~Makes finding one worth a little effort to keep it happy. I think I’ve seen it on the plant list at our local native plant nursery. Perhaps this plant will help you in your quest for the Holy Grail hummer photo. xoxogail ps love the quote from the plant hunter!

    Thanks Gail. This shrub was in bloom when I bought it, or it might not have caught my attention. I am so glad it is finally having a good year, too. The hummers visit it so early in the morning, the flash is needed on my camera. I doubt there will even be a photo, but there is always hope!

  8. That is a ridiculously gorgeous flower for this time of year (well, any time, actually)! I had no idea such a beautiful thing existed in these parts… looks like it should be a tropical from Hawaii.

    Hi Michaele, thanks. The flower is tropical looking with those long stamens, but the leaf and form are very similar to all of the other deciduous azaleas along the walk. You would not be able to pick it out of the lineup when none were in bloom

  9. Marguerite says:

    Wow. Those flowers look like a three alarm fire (in the best possible way….) . I had to drink most of my 20 oz glass of iced peppermint tea sitting next to me just sitting admiring it. Your garden is just so lovely and inspiring. Sante and L’chayim, lil Hum’B’s.

    Thanks Marguerite. The color is brilliant and glows in the early morning and after sunset. That is when the hummers like it best, too.

  10. meredehuit says:

    I can see why the hummingbirds love this bloom… the color is striking! Wishing azalea’s would grow in my Zone 5 gardens… sigh.

    Hi Meredith, thanks for visiting. You can grow the similar, but spring blooming Lights series developed by the University of Minnesota, I believe. Mandarin Lights is very close to this color.

  11. junglegarden says:

    Beautiful colours.


  12. sandy lawrence says:

    Frances, aren’t we lucky, your frequent readers! We get to view these lovely flowers, thanks to your camera eye, with no creek wading, no water moccasin bites and no briar scratches, even those of us who can’t grow azaleas in these TX Hill Country alkaline soils. I learned something new today. I had no idea that azaleas bloom this late in the year, having seen them only in East TX and LA, where they bloom in very early spring.

    Thanks Sandy, for those kind words. Most of the deciduous azaleas do bloom in spring, with early, mid and late season. I have a couple that bloom in summer, with dark pink to reddish blooms, then this plum leaf is the very last.

  13. Les says:

    I am not sure about azaleas that bloom in the summer, including Encores, but that hot orange-red color is a good color for me and appropriate for the season. Thanks for sharing it.

    HiLes, thanks for visiting. I have 3 summer blooming deciduous azaleas and they are sort of wasted in the landscape with all the other stuff going on then. Except this year and this plum leaf, which has so many more flowers than ever before. Maybe it finally decided it liked it here. The color is marvelous. I have it behind coneflowers and the color goes well with the orange of the cones, too.

  14. Fred says:

    I love plum leaf azaleas and tried to grow one here in northern Virginia and it died after two years. Other deciduous azaleas are doing fine. How do you keep your plum leaf azalea thriving?

    Hi Fred, and welcome. It is heartening to find another lover of the deciduous azaleas. The plumleaf has not exactly been thriving here, I fear it is too dry on my steep slope, it needs more water. But this year, with more watering due to the earlier in the summer heat and drought, then crazy rain in early July, and a milder than normal winter, it is having the best year ever. My advice is to give it more water, but plant it in a partly shady, very well drained area. Good luck!

  15. “Spectacular” is a good word for it! Also, simply “wow”! That bloom will wake you up! I can see why the hummingbirds like it.

    Thanks Plant Postings. This year sees the plum leaf azalea much more full of flowers than ever before. It really does stand out with that brilliant color.

  16. How interesting that next year’s blooms are formed before this year’s open. I love such botanical factoids.

    Hi Kathy, thanks for visiting. I am glad you found something of interest here!

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