Are those plants Azaleas or Wild Honeysuckle? Help settle an argument.

If you’ve been on a walk recently back into the woods around the Concord Woolen Mill ruins, you’ve surely noticed some blooms emerging after a long winter. The 100-acre park around the Silver Comet trail head is a great place to enjoy nature at its best–and has been for the past 150 years. During the boom times of the factory’s operation, the Nickajack stop on the Southern Railway was a famous destination for the Picnic crowd, not just from Smyrna and Marietta, but Atlanta as well. From the Marietta Journal, April 1889: “Nickajack: Our friends have already begun to picnic and enjoy the murmur of rippling and the fragrance of the wild honeysuckle about Concord Mill.”

From 1940 to 1950, The Medlocks lived at the Covered Bridge in the Rock House and gave it the name Berclay Hall. The Medlocks were good friends with Judge B. C. Gardner, a well-respected appellate court judge for over 20 years. The following argument took place in February of 1941 between Judge Gardner and Mrs. Medlock, and was recorded in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution:

Mrs. Marvin Medlock won ten dollars recently, while Judge B.C.Gardner, of the court of appeals, lost ten dollars.

It was like this: Mrs. Medlock bought a number of shrubs called wild azaleas to plant at her new country place on Concord Mills road. After planting them at Berclay Hall, the Judge told her they were called “wild honeysuckle” in south Georgia where he came from.

She informed him in no uncertain terms that they were wild azaleas. She knew, because she had studied botany at Emory and he had not.

Thereupon, they decided to place a small bet of five dollars each on the question and write their favorite nurseries for information on the subject. Later, Judge Gardner decided that it was a mighty good wager and he better stake ten on it. Mrs. Medlock acquiesced.

Both letters from the nurseries came back saying that the native Georgia flower known as wild honeysuckle was in reality a native form of wild azalea. So Mrs. Medlock now has twenty dollars to spend on Azalea Trail–the ten she won and the ten she might have lost.

Next spring she expects Azalea Trail, the name she has given the walk from Berclay Hall to the dam at Nickajack Creek, to be a mass of pink, wild azaleas, since the money is going into more plants. Judge Gardner insists he could think of a better name to call the trail, but it wouldn’t be printable.

If this wager had happened today, I doubt they would send off letters to botanical gardens, right? They probably would have googled the image, emailed a botanical garden’s blog, or Instagramed the question with the hashtag #whatplantisthis. So for fun, I did that for them–78 years later–with Google. This is what Fred Spicer, from the Birmingham, Alabama Botanical Garden, had to say about Mrs. Medlock and Judge Gardner’s argument:

For starters, thanks for the photograph! It clearly shows the plant so there’s no confusion on my part. It’s Rhododendron canescens [row-doe-DEN-drin kin-ESS-inz], otherwise known as Piedmont azalea (truly a better common name than the one above). It is the most commonly-encountered native azalea (and Alabama has around a dozen species, depending on the authority) in our area and is the first native to flower coming out of winter, doing so before the leaves unfold. Normally that’s around April 1, but as we all know, things are early this year and the flowers are at peak right now. The flowers are very fragrant, typically pink, or pale pink to white with darker pink floral tubes; they are rarely all white. Some specimens sport flowers that have a yellowish blotch on the uppermost petal; most don’t.

Many people are surprised to learn these are azaleas because they do not bring to mind the dense, rounded, broadleaf evergreen shrubs familiar to almost everyone. The truth is that deciduous species of azaleas outnumber evergreen species worldwide, and we are in one of the centers of diversity of these glorious plants.

Sometimes I just hate common names. I hope I’m not coming off as a plant snob (okay – I’ve been called that and worse!) but “wild honeysuckle” is just too confusing as it is applied to three or more different plants. The garden writer and designer Rick Darke has written eloquently about the importance of common names in preserving unique aspects of regional (or national) culture and language – and he’s absolutely correct. But now and again the fogginess of common names leads to misunderstandings, and this is the case here, which I’ll get into below.

Now, about that honeysuckle name. Do azalea flowers look like honeysuckle flowers? Superficially, yes, in the same manner in which a Saab looks like a Oldsmobile: they both have four wheels, doors and windows. Both flowers have flowers that feature tubular bases (although honeysuckle’s is much narrower), they both have petals (but honeysuckles only sort of), and they both have stamens that project beyond the edges of the flower. Some honeysuckles and some azaleas are also fragrant. A key difference is that all honeysuckles have opposite leaves and all azaleas (and all members of their family, the Ericaceae) have alternate leaves. They’re not really that similar. If I was a native azalea and someone called me a honeysuckle, I think I would be mildly offended.

Our Alabama native honeysuckle is Lonicera sempervirens [la-NISS-er-uh sem-purr-VIE-rinz], very appropriately called trumpet honeysuckle. Now that’s a very nice, unambiguous common name! Found throughout the state, they are nowhere common. Trumpet honeysuckle is a twining vine with clusters of brilliant red (sometimes pink-red) flowers with yellow centers, borne at the tips of the branches on new wood in April (and this year: now); the fruits are small, translucent red berries. Leaf color can have tints of red-brown when leaves are young, before maturing to a glaucous blue-green. The tips of the flowers barely flare at all, making 5 small, radially symmetrical petals. Though without fragrance, the flowers provide excellent (and early) hummingbird fodder. Like all vines, trumpet honeysuckle requires some maintenance, but this is a really good garden plant and requires far less care than most.

The most common honeysuckle in Alabama is by far Lonicera japonica [la-NISS-er-uh juh-PAHN-ih-kuh], Japanese honeysuckle. According to Alan Weakley, no other invasive plant is found in more places in the Southeast. Among the region’s A-List of invasive exotic plant species, kudzu may be the poster child, cogongrass the up-and-comer, and privet the spreading nightmare, but Japanese honeysuckle is ubiquitous, the result of over a century of planting and passing along as an ornamental (and just as many years of bird dissemination). It is so common that most people believe it to be native and merely call it honeysuckle. It grows as a twining vine or groundcover. Leaves are always medium green, but in some named varieties and wild forms, the new growth is dark purple and leaves retain some overall darkness through the growing season. Flowers are fragrant, white fading to burnt yellow, with prominent but asymmetrical upper and lower petals and a flared tube. The fruit is a shiny black berry.

The exotic shrub honeysuckles, 3 or 4 species, are much more destructive to natural ecosystems than L. japonica, but are not found in great numbers in central Alabama. They are, however, moving our way from the northeast where their impact has been extremely ruinous.

Noting the differences in these names and the plants they represent is important if we are to be good stewards of our state’s unique biodiversity. If you run into an actual honeysuckle growing “wild” in Alabama, it’s almost assuredly a heinous exotic weed. When you come across an azalea in the wild, that’s special – please show a little respect!  [source]

Enjoy a fragrant walk this weekend down to the ruins of the Concord Woolen Mill, and see if you can locate some wild honeysuckle azaleas!


Are you enjoying this? Help us by sharing it: