I live on an old pine flat. That means the soil is basically a bog soil on what are called flatwoods: open canopied long-leaf and slash pine and pond cypress-dominant forests with grassy understory, dependent upon fire to exist.
There is not much of the forest and fine fuel grasses and not much fire around anymore but the soil under my feet, at our home-place, is probably pretty close to what it was before 1930, when this old house was built.
After gardening several years in this soil, its become clear that planting wet-tolerant plants is a necessity. One of plants that I consider to be a favorite is commonly called the swamp azalea. It was mistakenly given this name since it technically should be called the bog azalea. It grows in bogs of the forests of coastal eastern United States and Gulf Coast region. It doesn’t grow at all, in swamps. At least down here.
I love to go where the bog azalea grows in south Mississippi and Louisiana because you will find yourself in an primitive world when you arrive at the spot where they grow.
Where the creeks begin, that is the spot you’re hunting for. Where the seeps come out of the hillside and then start to trickle into a slight semblance of running water. Occasionally, the number of seeps are numerous in a given area and can cover the ground of a forested hillside. This is the home of the a dapper southern fellow: the bog azalea. Where the acidity in the soil is way-high. Where old plant material that falls to the ground cannot break down because of the moisture level and the extreme acidity that prevents decomposition and where the accumulation of this debris over time overlaying the course-grained sand of the creek edge. That is what gives you the bog soil. This highly specific soil supports a specialized community of largely woody plants. Sometimes called a hammock or a bay gall, this natural plant community is very unique and fairly easy to identify once you know what to look for/ where to find one.
The water is not stagnant at all so it is not a swamp. It is quite the opposite. The water is clean and crystal clear and very drinkable, having just come from Mother Nature’s hillside filter of sand.
click photo to enlarge
above: buds of bog azalea
above: color of bog azalea is so HOT!
The bog azalea’s roots are perfectly adapted to the bog and loves it sandy-drained yet moist and takes shady or sunny. The plant grows most often, to about five or seven feet in height and an old one will get four or so feet wide. Generally, its an upright deciduous shrub. The leaves are rhododendron-ish, small, about two to three inches in length. Leaves are green in the spring and early summer with a definite silvery-blue tone underneath. The leaves turn beautiful reddish tones in late summer, adding to fall color for a couple of months before falling, after hard frost. The leaf-drop further exposes next year’s scaly, pointed-tipped buds. The individual flowers are flare-tubed, bugle-like flowers, and sticky-to-the-touch. They’re displayed in clusters of many, and are white as a bedsheet. And are wonderfully, deliciously fragrant. And nice on the eyes. Hummingbirds nectar on the flowers.
above: the leaves of the bog azalea
The fragrance of the plant has always intrigued me. It is a spicey-vanilla-sweet scent that I have noticed on other white-flowering natives. The scent of Partridge Berry is very similar to the scent of bog azalea. So is Clethra (Summersweet). Also, Aronia(Choke Cherry) and Amelanchier(Service Berry). And there are others. My suspicion is that its a night flying moth that is the pollinator, using the scent as a guide. The scent is more strong, it seems, when humidity is higher, in the evenings.
The bog azalea is a relatively adaptable plant. It needs acidity and it needs to be pampered with water until its established for a few years in the landscape before you can just forget about it. Once its established, its there forever. Just keep it well-mulched and give it a good drink when it is droughty and it will reward you for your effort.
Rhododendron folks may not like the bog azalea because it has the habit of keeping its spent flowers until they finally wither away, but I give it a break. Especially since it is hard to grow most other upland azaleas on this property, where I live, with the heavy oft-saturated soils and all. But the bog azalea loves it here. Mix crushed, aged pine bark into the soil when planting the bog azalea and then mulch three incges or more each year with the same. It will reward you for your meager efforts.
Get your nurseryman to find bog azalea through wholesalers Rick Webb, Amite, La., or Van der Giesen Nursery in Semmes, Al.
above: an artistic rendering of the bog sweet
I have planted the bog azalea with eryngium yuccafolia(button snake root) and the spectacular “Forest Frost” Phlox pilosa(Downy Phlox) together in my garden. These three plants are all white in flower and have different characteristics that compliment one another and provide for year-round function and interest.
Visit the abita flats preserve to see the bog azalea in the wild! go wild!