North Carolina Honors Springtime Azaleas
Sam Franklin knows why the North Carolina plant world celebrates azaleas.
“The beauty that they bring to our state and to the Southeast is unparalleled,” says Franklin, who runs a nursery in Henderson.
Franklin and his brother, Joe, began Franklin Brothers Nursery in 1974 when he was a college sophomore and Joe was in high school. Joe has since segued into ministry, but Sam Franklin and his wife, Sheila, continue the nursery operation.
Show-stopping beauty characterizes the azalea, Franklin says. “Your architectural forms and textures are important,” he notes, “but color in the landscape engages people.”
When to Plant Azaleas
Azaleas come in a rainbow of shades of pink, purple, yellow and white, but Franklin says, “Reds are what people gravitate to.”
Vibrant red pushes a green button for azalea lovers, agrees Camilo Apolinar. He and his wife, Juliana, own C&J Nursery in Angier, where they sell between 18,000 and 25,000 azaleas per season.
Although Apolinar recommends fall planting to establish a root system, many choose azaleas in the spring. The timing is understandable. “That’s when they show the color,” he says.
Azaleas, a Southeast Asia import, are generally easy to propagate and grow with proper placement and watering, no matter when the gardener chooses to plant them. Only the state’s coastal and high mountain regions prove barriers for azalea growth. In the foothills and throughout the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, the plant thrives.
Of the thousands of varieties, Sunglow and Wolfpack Red sell particularly well. “We cannot even keep the Wolfpack,” Apolinar says. “It’s one of the brightest reds.”
Traditional Formosa azaleas are also popular, especially in more established gardens.
“We tend to be comfortable with plants that we already have,” Franklin says. “Familiarity is something we battle when we’re trying to introduce something new to the industry.” Nonetheless, the relatively new Encore variety is gaining popularity. The patented brand blooms in spring, summer and fall.
Gayle Ward of Wilmington loves Encore azaleas. She is a longtime member and leader of the Cape Fear Garden Club, the second largest garden club in the United States. (“The first club is in Texas… somewhere,” she says with a laugh.) Her club is instrumental in organizing the internationally recognized North Carolina Azalea Festival.
“Azaleas are wonderful to landscape with, and you can control their size with pruning,” says Ward, who grew up on a farm. “But you should only cut right after they bloom.” Otherwise, she notes, you’ll destroy future flowers.
Ward prefers to buy in spring. “I like to see the blossom that I’m actually getting,” she says.
An azalea can die from freezing weather, overwatering, drought or by planting too deep (plant “no deeper than the pot it came in,” Ward advises). But, overall, they’re hardy. The blooms lasts two to three weeks at a time. With proper care, they live very long lives.
North Carolina Azalea Festival
Resplendent landscaping lures visitors to southeastern North Carolina each spring. Called the city of a million azaleas, Wilmington began hosting the award-winning North Carolina Azalea Festival in 1948. The 2021 event will be held April 7-11.
The celebration attracts thousands with a heady mix of events. For instance, the Cape Fear Garden Club offers tours of 13 stellar gardens, large and small ($20 per map/ticket). Hoop-skirted high school seniors called Azalea Belles serve as garden guides.
Other highlights include a street fair of arts and crafts, a parade, concerts, home tours, an azalea queen coronation and even celebrity sightings. Luminaries who have participated in the past include Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jordan, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Ripa.
The city’s bountiful azaleas blanket the town, setting a picturesque backdrop for the extravaganza.
Want to grow your own blushing azaleas? Check out helpful tips here.
– Nancy Dorman-Hickson