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Species In Our Midst
Rhododendron prunifolium

by George Silverman

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

Rhododendron prunifolium

The common name for this lovely native azalea is the Plumleaf Azalea; ‘prunifolium’, in fact, means ‘having a leaf like a plum’. According to Fred C. Galle, in his Azaleas, this species was first collected by R.M. Harper near Cuthbert, Georgia in 1913, and was called at that time, Azalea prunifolia. It was introduced into cultivation in 1918 by the Arnold Arboretum.

R. prunifolium is most closely related to our other red-flowered Eastern native azaleas, R. flammeum, cumberlandense, and calendulaceum; it can be distinguished from these other species by its nearly glabrous (hairless) and more gradually expanding corolla tube.

R. prunifolium grows in an extremely limited range in southwestern Georgia and eastern Alabama. It grows wild as a tall shrub, up to 15 feet, in ravines along streams in mixed pine and hardwood forests. It blooms in mid to late summer long after the leaves are fully developed. The tubular-funnel-form flowers present colors of reddish orange to vivid red. The Pattersons have a form of this plant that blooms in late August in Norwell, MA.

R. prunifolium is hardy to -15°F , although some older texts reported it as much more tender. It is moderately easy to propagate by soft wood cuttings.

Cox in his The Larger Rhododendron Species expressed concern that this species was in danger of extinction in the wild with few young seedlings to be seen. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Naturalist, James R. Allison, states that the ability of this species to occupy stream banks or other steep slopes account for the fact that apparently not a single well documented population has been extirpated and that no natural populations of R. prunifolium are known to be have been impacted by development. He concludes that R. prunifolium is a species not in the least threatened by extinction! Nonetheless, R. prunifolium occupies a limited, vulnerable range in the wild. It certainly deserves a spot in every garden in this area.

George Silverman, Lexington, MA

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