Q: We live in a woodland setting landscaped with evergreen azaleas. Ecology-minded friends have advised pulling out these “exotics” and planting “natives” that belong here, yet I don’t want to give up my azaleas’ blooms. What Should I do? — Eleanor Hacker, Mount Holly, N.C.
A: For well over a century, horticultural imports like your evergreen azaleas, most of which originally came from Japan, have dominated North American landscapes to the undeserved exclusion of many wonderful native plants. Even some of our showiest natives, such as fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus, or black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia fulgida, have had to wait until the past decade or two to be appreciated as the fine garden specimens they are. Making amends for long-term neglect, while maintaining the biological diversity of our environment is a laudable goal, but we do our gardens a disservice when we banish healthy, attractive plants because of their foreign ancestry. Contrary to popular belief, natives are not always better adapted or more pest-resistant than exotics. I prefer to choose the right plant for the right place, aesthetically and culturally, without checking its citizenship papers, just so long as it isn’t an aggressive invader like purple loosestrife, Norway maple, or kudzu.
Instead of deporting all your azaleas in a politically correct purge, consider removing only a few where woodland meets garden. This will make room for the addition of native shrubs and small trees that provide varied foliage color and texture, as well as a broader spread of bloom time. They’ll also create a more natural-looking transition from woods to yard than a uniform wall of dense greenery and flowers (though you can thin bushy azaleas to give them an airier, wilder look). Closer to the house, take out azaleas whose flower colors don’t suit your taste, and fill in with natives. In any case, it’s wrong to dismiss every azalea as an alien interloper, because there are lots of native North American deciduous varieties. Many of them are wonderfully fragrant and bloom earlier or later in spring than your evergreen exotics. As for natives that stretch seasonal interest even further, consider summer-flowering oak-leaved hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, and summersweet, Clethra alnifolia, which gives off a delicately spicy scent. Fothergilla gardenii offers fabulous orange-red fall color. And winterberry, Ilex verticillata, with its profuse, bright red fruits, is a garden star during the winter when any azalea, native or exotic, tends to fade into the background.