By Stefan Bloodworth
Photos by Sheon Wilson
It is somewhat fitting that Rhododendron prunifolium, the latest-blooming of our native azaleas, was the last of that group to be discovered and described by botanists. Native to the thickly vegetated, bottomland streams that crisscross the southern border counties of Georgia and Alabama, the plumleaf azalea proved to be a hard plant to find for centuries.
It was Roland Harper, one of the pioneering botanists of the Deep South, who first found the species in Randolph County, Georgia, in 1903. Working with one of Harper’s herbarium specimens from that trip, botanist John Kunkel Small decided upon the name Azalea prunifolia in 1913. In years to come, the species was reclassified as a member of the genus Rhododendron.
First displayed publicly at the Arnold Arboretum in 1918, Rhododendron prunifolium has garnered much horticultural praise for its large stature, its long, elegantly protruding stamens, and its vibrant reddish-pink blooms, which come forth in mid-summer—appreciably later than its 27 native Rhododendron cousins, most of whom are early to mid-spring bloomers.
Rhododendron prunifolium is endemic to a very small portion of the deep South, and it has been noted in recent years that this limited range has made the species quite vulnerable to habitat disturbance. As a result, it is listed as a threatened species by both national and global plant conservation organizations. In the Blomquist Garden, a sizable stand of this showy native can be found adjacent to the Edwin F. Steffek Jr. Bridge and Fern Grotto.
This plant highlight first appeared in "A Closer Look" in Duke Gardens' 2015 Flora Magazine. It is currently blooming in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants.
Stefan Bloodworth is the curator of the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. Sheon Wilson is the publications coordinator at Duke Gardens.