In the early spring as the trees are beginning to turn green one might come across a brilliant burst of fiery orange blooms accompanied by a honeysuckle-like fragrance. There’s no mistaking it for anything else, this is the rare flame azalea, Rhododendron austrinum.
The flame azalea produces clusters of blooms before it puts on any leaves. The flowers range from golden yellow to reddish orange. The shrub is in the heath family and occurs in only four of the southeastern counties in Mississippi along sandy slopes, bluffs and bottomlands. It can reach a height of up to 10 feet tall and has deciduous leaves. Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.
The global conservation status of the flame azalea is “at-risk” (of becoming extinct). Within Mississippi the plant is considered rare to imperiled.
Its habitat is threatened by development, over-collecting, conversion to pasture and row crops and intense silviculture.
The Nature Conservancy is protecting flame azaleas on its Red Creek Mitigation Bank by restoring the longleaf pine forest.
The showy flame azalea is often planted as a landscape specimen. Always purchase native plants from a reputable nursery, never dig them up in the wild.