Native Azaleas from Seed

Soeur(z6b TN)October 25, 2005

Picked the first azalea seed pods of the year today, so it's definitely time for the instructions I promised.


Plastic storage containers (I use soup/sandwich size by Glad)-- each variety of azalea in its own container

One gallon ziplock plastic storage bags

ProMix soilless potting mix, or other peat-based soilless potting mix


Long fiber sphagnum moss

White paper (copier/typewriter)

Kitchen strainer

Distilled water

Spray bottle

Espoma Holly-Tone fertilizer

In winter, fluorescent light setup unless you have a wonderful, non-drafty bright window


Collect seed pods and clean the seed. Pods should be brown and the tips of the pods should be starting to separate. Over a sheet of white paper, carefully open the pod segments (there are usually four or so) and flake the seeds out onto the paper, getting as little extraneous material as possible. I use the tip of a pushpin for this operation. The seed is rusty brown and pretty small. Under a loupe you would see that it's actually wafer-like, with little wings. Put the seed somewhere safe where an errant breeze won't scatter it.

Punch about 20 holes all over the bottom of the container with an icepick or a phillips head screwdriver.

Mix perlite in with the soilless potting mix at a 1:3 ratio. IOW, 1/3 cup perlite to 1 cup potting mix. To one cup of this mix add 1 tsp Holly-Tone. Mix well.

Fill container 2/3 full with above mix. Wet soil with distilled water until entire mass is wet and water runs out drainage holes. Drain well.

Over a piece of white paper, take a handful of sphagnum moss and rub it briskly against the screen of the kitchen strainer. Put 1/8" or a little more of the resultant finely milled sphagnum on top of the soil in the container and spray it on mist setting with distilled water until it is thoroughly moist. This will take a surprising amount of water.

Sprinkle azalea seed as evenly as possible over surface of damp sphagnum. Mist seed into crannies with distilled water spray.

Put container into plastic bag and seal. I write on the bag with a Sharpie first, putting the species and sow date. Put bag under lights -- lights should be about 4" above container.

Fresh seed germinates in 2-3 weeks for me. Seed does not keep well -- one year old seed stored at 40 degrees was nearly all dead.

Grow on in sowing container until minimum of two sets of true leaves have formed, partially unsealing the bag (about 1/3 open) as the babies get bigger. You can transplant on at that point into cells. As the babies are used to nearly 100% humidity, be prepared to bag the cell flat for the first few weeks after transplanting -- those clear plastic garbage bags intended for recycling work fine. The seedlings are quite small and take a little time to get any size to them, but once they get 4-5 sets of leaves they start to grow quite fast. I feed the youngsters with liquid iron and seaweed about 1x a week during spring and summer, and there's Holly-Tone in the pot.

NOTE: Always use distilled water. Even if you've dechlorinated your tap water, it may still be too alkaline for little seedlings. Once they get growing vigorously and get some size, they're evidently much less sensitive to pH. But chlorine and chloramine are always a no-no.

The seeds I sowed last December are now plants that are 9-12" tall, quite husky and living in 4" pots. They're wintering over in a cold frame. They'll move into one gallon pots come spring, but would be plenty big enough to plant out in a garden if that were my aim.

BTW, any azalea seed can be grown following these instructions, not just natives. Also rhododendron, kalmia, leucothoe, oxydendron, etc.


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rizzir(z7b TN)

Thanks, Marty! OK, April, now that we have our sowing directions... when are we going seed collecting in your special area? Let's make plans!


    Bookmark   October 25, 2005 at 11:14PM
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amazindirt(7A mid-TN)

Road trip! Road trip!

    Bookmark   October 25, 2005 at 11:19PM
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penny1947(z6 WNY)

THis is just the exact info I came looking for as I just received a small amount of native azalea seed today from a swap. I do have lots of chaff to try and remove so it will be interesting to see if I do infact get any germination. I am keeping my fingers crossed. If I get one plant I will consider it a success. BTW, How fine is the seed. I have what appears to be mostly dust in with the pod debris.


    Bookmark   November 21, 2005 at 2:51PM
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Soeur(z6b TN)

Penny, I used to live in WNY. Gotta say, I do NOT miss the winters. Or those summers where it rains every weekend for, like, 10 weeks in a row and then it's autumn. But I had some good times and met some great people there. Wonderful area if you're a birder, which I am.

Azalea seed is fairly fine, but it's not as tiny as dust, or, say, begonia seed. It usually resembles little oblong flattened wafers that are maybe 1/20 inch long or so (a guess -- I'm not anal enough to try to measure the things).

The woody pods typically are comprised of four longitudinal chambers arranged around a sort of corky central pith. The best way to get the seed out is spelled out in my first post. It's tedious but effective. You may find no seed in some chambers, as there are little weevils that bore into the pods and eat the seed as it ripens. They do leave behind a very fine dust.

April, are you out there? It's primetime for gettin' that Scott's Gulf seed....


    Bookmark   November 21, 2005 at 11:08PM
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penny1947(z6 WNY)

I think I have identified 6 seeds after sifting through all the debris. THanks Marty for the additional info. Hopefully I wll get at least one seedling!

BTW, I moved here to wny in '89 from Louisiana so I am not a native and have never adjusted to the winters up here. Summers are ok but definitely not long enough for many things to grow and flower.


    Bookmark   November 22, 2005 at 11:30AM
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Hey Marty! Thanks for the reminder and tips. I sure wish I could join you on your collecting trip, but there's no way. I'll check the native Azaleas around here and see if they are ready too.

    Bookmark   November 28, 2005 at 5:23PM
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I had occasion to visit, a couple of years back, a retired agronomy professor, in my hometown, who's been growing azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias from seed for 40+ years.
Of the thousands of azaleas/rhodies he's started, he indicated that less than a handful were not worthy of keeping.
Seedling camellias, on the other hand were almost always inferior, and he'd long ago gotten to the point that he never even lets his camellia seedlings reach flowering age; he now only grows them out for use as rootstocks to be topworked to the new exciting introductions. He just didn't have the patience to wait for that one in ten thousand seedling with superior bloom quality.

    Bookmark   December 16, 2005 at 10:43AM
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misssherry(Z8/9SE MS)

I'm going to copy those instructions, Marty. I've still got lots of native azaleas on my hurricaned property, but I've never tried growing any from seed. I get jillions of seed pods every year, though, and I've always wanted to try my hand at it. My wild azaleas are mostly r. austrinum and r. canescens, but I've got some r. flammeum, r. alabamense, and some natural r. serrulatum, also.
Wild azaleas are some of my very favorite plants!

    Bookmark   December 16, 2005 at 7:48PM
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Lucky, it sounds like the agronomy professor was trying to produce new superior varieties and wasn't satisfied with his results. What he encountered is pretty much par for the course anytime one tries to do that - only one seedling in thousands is an improved variety. But, growing native plants from seeds collected from species plants that were open pollinated should produce plants like the parent. Like any native population there will probably be some variation in individual plants, but probably nothing significant. Those beautiful native Azaleas we see growing wild in the woods were certainly seed-grown. Marty does this all the time as part of her job, and I'm thrilled that she has given such detailed instructions to the rest of us amateurs. I can't wait to get started!

    Bookmark   December 17, 2005 at 4:42PM
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marty i really enjoyed the article. could you tell me, please, at what temp do you start and maintain the seeds? thank you, jeff

    Bookmark   July 18, 2007 at 10:36PM
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Soeur(z6b TN)

Room temp is fine, say a range of 65 to 80 F. Cold drafts should be avoided, and if you've got them under lights don't let them get too hot.


    Bookmark   July 21, 2007 at 6:13PM
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