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Where the Wild Things Are
Thursday, April 16, 2009
No lawn worthy of that name in the South is without its contingent of azaleas.  If you've traveled through our area in the spring you can never forget the breathtaking explosion of color afforded by the hybridized, domesticed cultivars of those shrubs.  They're beautiful, but not unlike the colors of impatiens, the azaleas' colors draw from the aggressively fluorescent end of the color spectrum, and the placid greens of the shady woods can suffer from the glare of the almost accusatory pinks and magentas.
But like all domesticated things, the modern azaleas have their wild counterparts, mostly forgotten in a rush to embrace the 'new and improved' plants derived from selective breeding.  At Greenfire Farms, we have three native azalea species that grow wild in our woods.  Gangly and nondescript for most of the year, for a few brief weeks in the spring they burst forth with bright blooms in bizarre shapes.  In appearance, they are as different from domestic azaleas as a wolf from a poodle.  And, like wolves, these wild azaleas have been eliminated from much of their natural range.   Most wild azaleas are now classified by the federal government as endangered species.
My favorite species of the wild and endangered azaleas is known as the Florida flame, Rhododendrom austrinum.  With its alien-life-form flowers, deep salmon and golden hues, and an intoxicating honeysuckle smell, this shrub puts to shame 'improved' azaleas.   The plight of the flame is so dire, and its superiority is so compelling that (at least at the late hour at which this blog is written) it seems that we have no moral alternative other than to engage in the nocturnal and involuntary removal of all domesticated azaleas in this region of Florida --nay, the country!-- and replace them with the real deal:  Something wild and untamed.