Although there are a variety of climates—coastal, plains, piedmont, mountain and desert—throughout the American South, there a number of plants that can be identified as common to the region overall. Some carpet the landscape regally with spring and summer blossoms. These include azaleas, camellias, dogwoods and magnolias. Young women are crowned in their honor and preside over festivals in communities stretching from North Carolina to Texas. Here is a brief look at these queens of the landscape and other popular Southern plants.
The University of Florida lists 24 species of magnolias as being common to the South. One is Magnolia grandiflora, better known as the Southern magnolia. The Floridata website notes that Southern magnolia grows well along streams and the edges of swamps where soil is moist, fertile and acidic. Pyramidal in shape, this evergreen grows up to 90 feet tall. Its white, lemony-fragrant blossoms can be as big as 12 inches in diameter. Southern magnolias are cold hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) zones 7 to 9.
While the giant dogwood (Cornus controversa) can grow up to 50 feet tall, one of the most popular dogwood species, Cornus florida, commonly referred to as flowering dogwood, ranges from 25 to 35 feet tall. Some flowering dogwoods have white blossoms, while others have pink to red blooms. They are cold hardy to USDA zones 5A to 9A.
The evergreen shrub autumn camellia (Camellia sasanqua) flowers from late fall into early winter and is cold hardy to USDA zones 7 to 10. Depending on the cultivar, its blossoms are single or double layered and range from white with a touch of pink to rose to deep red. Autumn camellia grows up to 12 feet tall. When multiple bushes are planted, it forms a pretty screen. Although this variety tolerates full sun better than other varieties of camellias, it prefers partial shade and regular watering.
Although most azalea shrubs are deciduous, Clemson University says that most used in home landscaping are evergreen. Their showy, trumpet-shaped blossoms come in a wide variety of colors, including white, pink, coral, gold and lavender. Similar to rhododendrons, to which they are related, azaleas need acidic soil so they love being planted near pine trees. Filtered shade will ensure a longer bloom time for their flowers. Depending on the species, they grow from 2 to 5 feet tall. Cold and heat hardiness varies broadly, including some hybrids that can tolerate the cold of Minnesota (USDA zone 3) and others that can survive the heat of zone 9. But most grow best in zones 6 to 8.
The heirloom "seven sisters" climbing rose bush is known for producing up to seven different colors of blossoms on one plant: purple, scarlet, red, lighter red, pink, light pink and white. It grows from 9 to 13 feet tall and does well in USDA zones 6 to 9.
The tea olive tree (Osmanthus fragrans) often is grown as a shrub, but can reach up to 20 feet tall in zones 8 to 10. Its tiny, white, star-shaped blossoms are known for smelling like apricots.
Not all perennial flowers are right for life in the South. Examples include peonies and delphiniums. They would seem cut out for the role of southern belles in the garden, but require long periods of dormancy at low temperatures. The Plant-Care.com website recommends a number of heat- and drought-tolerant perennials that do well deep into the South. These include various members of the aster family, such as Chrysanthemum, Gaillardia, Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum), Rudbeckia and Transvaal daisy (Gerberia Jamesoni). Its suggestions also encompass daylilies (Hemerocallis), Iris, Phlox and sunflowers (Helianthus floridanus).
Plant-Care.com says that when preparing a perennial bed, most southern soils require extra organic matter, such as well-rotted manure, compost and leaf mold. Fertilizer should be dug deep in the soil so plant roots will grow deeper, stay cooler and moister and withstand extreme heat.
Some annuals that succeed in the South provide more bang for the buck by reseeding each year. Southern Living magazine particularly likes poppies, larkspurs, coreopsis and cosmos, which have a way of reappearing in "unexpected places," such as gravel paths and between rocks. The magazine notes, "This randomness gives a cottage garden its charm and surprise."
Fall is the best time to sow seed for these flowers. Add extra organic matter to the flowerbed, then rake the soil smooth of rocks and twigs. Sprinkle the seeds over the surface of the soil, tamp them down so they are barely covered, water gently and avoid mulching.