Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Allz you ever wanted to know about Azaleas

Species name: Rhododendron sp.

Common name: "Northern Hi-lights" azalea, Northern Hi-lights rhododendron

Location: Ontario

Surprisingly enough, many of the species of plants in this genus are actually native to North America. Usually when you think of (OK, maybe you don't but I do) bright, showy flowers you think of Asia and sometimes South America. I rarely think of native plants as being bright and showy. Azaleas can be the one exception: many of the deciduous species (there are species in the genus that are either deciduous or evergreen) are cold-tolerant, and many will also tolerate below-optimal nutrients. I'm going to give this plant the benefit of the doubt and say it's a native species. This particular cultivar (meaning, it was created through "artificial selection" or selection through plant breeding) was created at the University of Minnesota through plant hybridization in 1994. Because it's a hybrid it is not true to seed, meaning it either doesn't produce seed (which I've never seen this plant produce any, so this is probably true) or the seeds produced are sterile. There is another condition when plants are referred to as not being true to seed; this is when the plant that grows out of the seed is not even remotely the same as the plant from which the seeds came. This happens through genetic recombination (or "gene shuffling") during mating, and there are many fruit tree species that are great examples of this phenomenon. If you've ever tried planting an apple seed and taking care of the tree to fruiting you'll have experienced this first hand!

Many species of azalea are tolerant to partial shade, but this cultivar apparently isn't one of them. This is a shame, since it's currently planted in my back yard under the stairs leading up to the deck and only gets sun for maybe an hour a day during the summer. If the landscapers had of planted it in a sunnier location, it would be loaded with flowers every summer and bring in quite an interesting array of wildlife into the back yard; I've heard that the flowers of this plant have much the same effect on racoons as catnip does on cats! Potentially entertaining, to say the least.

A cautionary tale with azaleas of any species is to make sure you supervise young children and pets around this plant, since all parts of (almost) all species are toxic. The toxic effects will be unlikely to lead to death in humans (it might in animals), but a sick child makes a very unhappy parent! Even honey from rhododendron flowers is said to be mildly hallucinogenic and is a mild laxative. That being said, this plant does have some potential as a source of medicine: it has been found in the lab to have anti-inflammatory effects and hepatoprotective effects (protects your liver) and so extracts from this plant are currently being investigated as a potential treatment and/or cure for liver disease.