They’re everywhere—in magenta, pink, white, red. Azaleas have been putting on a show, heralding the arrival of spring all across Norfolk. From lining the foundation of homes to enormous displays at the Botanical Garden, these shrubs have been fixtures in homes and gardens for decades.
The majority of azaleas we see showing off at the moment are Southern Indica Azaleas. The azaleas we readily recognize in garden centers are of Japanese descent to classify even further. These evergreen shrubs loaded with trumpet-like flowers emerge in a range of vibrant colors and patterns. They have a rich cultural history, full of symbolism and intrigue (ever hear of mad honey?), and were coveted by the wealthy in Europe. Many grew them in glasshouses and touted them as status symbols. They became collectors’ items that were eventually introduced to the United States in the 1830s at a rice plantation known as Magnolia-on-the-Ashley in Charleston, South Carolina, which later opened to the public after the Civil War as Magnolia Gardens (still open and worth the visit). Visitors flocked to see these blooms and found they were readily adaptable to the conditions of their home gardens and had many desirable characteristics in the landscape, making them a staple in garden centers to this day.
As their popularity skyrocketed, a certain horticulturist from Hampton Roads named Fred Heutte noted the popularity and partnered with Norfolk City Manager Thomas Thompson to create a garden that could rival the old south. In 1938, the pair were granted land along the Little Creek Reservoir to make it happen and received funding via Works Progress Administration grant. 200 African American women and 20 men toiled in the heat and humidity, clearing land for the gardens, and in 1939, planted several thousand azaleas and thousands of other plants. Their efforts are still appreciated and admired today, as the site is now known as Norfolk Botanical Garden. The name has changed several times throughout its history, but these gardens are still here to be explored and meandered through. Azaleas are still out in full force at the garden, and together they make up one of the largest collections in the US. In addition to the many Asian azaleas, you can see some of our incredible native (naturally occurring) ones as well! These azaleas are deciduous, dropping their leaves in the winter, and smell intensely of cotton candy. From pales pinks and whites to vivid oranges and yellows, natives azaleas dot the east coast, from lowlands like the Dismal Swamp, up through the Blue Ridge.
Looking to grow some at home, or have some already trucking along? Here are a few pointers in care: azaleas like shade and acidic soil (usually the soil here is naturally acidic enough) like what you’d find under the numerous loblolly pines in the area, and don’t like wet feet, aka standing water or soggy soils. Additionally, make sure to prune them after they bloom. Other than that, these plants are reasonably self-sufficient and pest free. If you choose to plant native azaleas, keep an eye out for early arriving hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies that frequent the nectar-rich flowers.
Azaleas are a staple shrub of the classic, romantic southern garden, and they’ve become a cultural icon here in Norfolk. From the historic Azalea Queens that once paraded during the NATO Festival to the old homes of Ghent and beyond, these brilliant blooms have permeated Norfolk’s history and culture as few other plants have.
Alex has lived in Hampton Roads her whole life, aside from her years studying Horticulture at Virginia Tech. She's been working at Norfolk Botanical Garden since 2014, starting off as a horticulturist in the gardens, and now focusing on education and outreach, teaching a range of subjects like native plants and wildlife, to gardening for home brewers and carnivorous plants. You might recognize her from her time working behind the bar at local breweries, or more recently leading nature tours on the Lafayette with Norfolk Kayak Rentals. Regardless, she prefers to spend her time outdoors, on the water, and looking for the next adventure.