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.
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.
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.