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Species In Our Midst
Rhododendron cumberlandense

by Frank Brako

Rhododendron cumberlandense
Picture by S & J Perkins
Rhododendron cumberlandense in Salem, NH

Rhododendron cumberlandense

This deciduous azalea, in Section Pentanthera, was formerly named R. bakeri, after Dr. W. F Baker, of Amory University. It has been recently renamed R. cumberlandense and its current name refers to the Cumberland Mountains and Plateau in western Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Its common name, likewise, is the Cumberland Azalea. R. cumberlandense is found in mixed hardwood forests from Virginia and Kentucky, south through Tennessee to northern Alabama, into North Carolina and into northern Georgia, at higher altitudes, mostly above 3000 feet. This North American azalea is hardy to -15°F.

The plant forms a handsome, tall bushy shrub, up to 6 feet high. The leaves are small, obovate, deep green or bluish green above and waxy underneath. The 1 3/4-inch wide flowers are tubular funnel shaped in trusses of 4 to 7. They are usually orange to orange red (sometimes, salmon, salmon apricot and clear yellow) and are often mistaken for the flame azalea (R. calendulaceum) in the wild. This deciduous azalea blooms very late, from June into August and therefore flowers after the leaves are fully expanded. The flowers have no fragrance.

In the southern Blue Ridge Mountains it forms natural hybrids with R. arborescens and R. viscosum. The hybrids with R. arborescens are clear yellows and pinks and the name R. furbishi was formerly given to this hybrid group from northern Georgia.

'Camp's Red' is a very hardy selection of R. cumberlandense from Black Mountain in Kentucky; it has a strong red color when grown in the mountains and a lighter orange-red color at lower altitudes, although Dick Brooks has not found this to be true with his plant of 'Camp's Red'.

R. cumberlandense is a lovely plant with obvious horticultural charm; it is hardy, attractive in leaf, very late blooming, and floriferous enough to brighten a mid-summer landscape.

Frank Brako, Acton, MA

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