Growing azaleas is a tradition in the Deep-South but can be challenging for gardeners farther north.
Many azaleas available are descended from Asian shrubs originally cultivated by Buddhist monks. Their plant family includes heath, rhododendrons, blueberries and pieris.
Introduced in Holland in 1680 as Indian azaleas, the original hybrids were greenhouse plants in Europe, and were first planted in Charleston SC in 1848. In addition, there are 26 azalea species that are native to North America.
Azaleas are divided into two categories: Evergreen and deciduous (the ones that lose their leaves in the winter).
Deciduous azaleas are North American natives and their hybrids. Their leaves can be as large as sux inches and the flowers range from white to purple, pink, red, orange and yellow.
Evergreen azaleas are from Asia. Their leaves are as small as 1/4 inch and the flower colors include white, purple, pink, red, and red-orange but not yellow. The flowers can be single colors and bi-colors, sectors, stripes and flecks.
The Azalea Society of America (www.azaleas.org) provides growing tips, plant sources, soil and moisture requirements, how to protect from extreme cold, heat damage, etc.
Encore azaleas are a hybrid that blooms in spring, late summer and fall, though with fewer flowers at a time than older, native, varieties have in a single burst in the spring. For several years, they have been sold as cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 9 but cold hardiness tests have shown that more than 20 varieties are cold hardy to zone 6.
A nursery grower, Robert E. Buddy Lee, crossed spring-blooming azaleas with Taiwanese rhododendron oldhamii and created encore azaleas that are evergreen in the south. His goal was to make an azalea hybrid that would boom in the spring and fall in Louisiana. The original group of six hybrids released in 1998 had pink, orange and lavenders flowers on compact as well as tall plants.
Lee’s growing advice includes: Raised beds for good drainage, moist, acidic soil amended with pine bark and mulch with pine straw. Plant the root ball two inches above soil grade and surround the exposed area with pine bark mulch.
Encore azaleas (www.encoreazaea.com) need four to six hours of full, morning, sun, followed by shade or filtered light after 2 p.m.
Azaleas’ fall flowers are formed on growth that occurs after spring bloom. If the plants are watered and planting conditions are right, the new growth will produce a full fall bloom.
Here are some to consider for a morning-sun location in your garden next spring:
• Autumn Angel has white flowers in spring and fall and glossy dark green leaves. The plants mature at 3 feet tall.
• Autumn Belle grows to 5 feet tall and 4 feet tall wide. The flowers are double pink with magenta freckles in the center.
• Autumn Carnation grows 3 feet tall. Its bright pink flowers are most abundant in late summer.
• Autumn Coral matures at 2 1/2 feet tall. The spring and fall flowers are coral pink with a bit of fuscia in the center.
• Autumn Embers grows to 3 feet tall with deep orange-red flowers in spring and fall.
• Autumn Rouge is the original encore azalea hybridized by Lee. It grows 4 feet tall and wide with two-inch wide semi-double pink flowers in spring and fall.
• Autumn Royalty was the American Rhododendron Society Azalea of the Year. The plant will grow to 4 1/2 feet tall and wide with large purple flowers.
• Autumn Twist is a popular purple and white striped flowering shrub. It grows 4 1/2 feet tall and wide. Can be grown in a container.