The mollis azaleas can be such a wonderfully flamboyant addition to a garden with strident colours which shout “look at me”! They are members of the rhododendron family but deciduous, cold tolerant and more forgiving of less than ideal soil conditions, particularly wetter and heavier ground. Many have fragrance which is gilding the lily further. Not all of them are such loud colours. You can get pastels, whites and subdued shades which show more refined taste, perhaps. But the vibrant oranges, yellows, reds and colour mixes have an intensity which is unrivalled in other members of the rhododendron family, magnified by the fact that they flower on bare wood, before the new season foliage appears.
Azalea mollis used to be very popular but are nowhere near as readily available these days. Their habits don’t suit modern nursery growing practices and they are only saleable when in flower so garden centres often shy away from them. In winter they are just bare sticks and in summer they are relatively anonymous and prone to mildew in warmer, humid climates. Their comparatively short selling season does not suit modern plant retailing so you may have to search them out and grab them when you find them without worrying too much about particular named cultivars. They are easy to raise from seed and often what is sold are just seedlings. Plant them in sunny positions where they can star in flower and not be too obvious when they aren’t.
Azalea mollis are not a species (which is how they occur in the wild). They are hybrids from controlled crosses, initially between the Chinese and Japanese azaleas but now pretty mixed in their genetics.
First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.