Could you please help us identify the azalea shown in the attached photograph? They are growing at our home in Elk Grove.
The azalea came from seed that was collected on private land in the Salmon Creek drainage, just south of Albion in Mendocino County. At our home, the azaleas are growing in the understory of Japanese maples on the north side of our house.
We have not been able to identify the species of azalea. Could you help us?
Tim Treichelt, Elk Grove
That bush most likely is California's native azalea the Western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale). This beautiful native is found in many areas of Northern California, particularly in mountain ranges near creeks or other water sources.
In the wild, Western azaleas can be found from southern Oregon to San Diego County. They're scattered throughout the Sierra, but not east. They like California's coastal mountain ranges and prefer stream banks, wetlands or watershed areas, such as where the seed for your bush was gathered.
Western azaleas can vary a lot in their individual look, but most are pearly white with a golden splotch. Some may have a pink blush or pink highlights. The foliage is glossy and the shrub can reach more than 12 feet in height.
These native azaleas were first noted by explorers in the early 1800s. In 1850, British botanist and plant collector William Lobb got seed for the Western azalea for his nursery in England. British plant breeders used Western azalea stock to develop early hybrid deciduous azaleas.
In the wild or home garden, the Western azalea prefers moist conditions (but not soggy soil) and filtered sunlight. It tolerates serpentine soil and actually thrives in the serpentine plains of the Siskiyou Mountains.
Because of its beauty and natural diversity, the Western azalea also has become a favorite of modern-day plant collectors and breeders.
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