Our world of azaleas here

Our sky carpet of Kurume azaleas in September

Our sky carpet of Kurume azaleas in September

I have never tracked the flowering season of our evergreen azaleas. Generally we would say they are spring flowering and the peak is in September. But this year, I have become aware of them coming into flower already and I have been snapping a few photos for several weeks. When I looked around, plenty have blooms out.

I googled and found references to them having a flowering season of a week or two in spring. Not here, is all I can say. For us, they are unsung heroes in the background of our garden. We have lots of evergreen azaleas and they are rarely foreground stars. But they are such an obliging plant because they grow in semi shade to shaded areas (of which we have plenty), they never get too large, they are wonderfully unfussy, don’t need deadheading and they gently flower on… and on… and on.

The evergreen azaleas are gently flowering already and will continue through til spring

The evergreen azaleas are gently flowering already and will continue through til spring

You can make them stars. You can turn them into bright, colourful clipped mounds of bloom if that is what you want in your garden. You can tastefully plant the same cultivar (to keep uniformity) as an edger alongside a driveway or path. You can colour tone for variation and mass plant out a gentle incline. Or you can ignore fashion and plant a mismatched collection as a vibrant statement of mushroom shaped mounds out in the open. With any of those options, you will probably get peak flowering for a couple of weeks and have relatively anonymous, small leafed green shrubs for the other 50 weeks of the year.

We have plenty of star plants in our garden, so we lean more to using the evergreen azaleas as understated support plants throughout. They are so obliging by nature. Even if you cut them back very hard, most will just come again. You can raise your own plants from seed if you are a patient gardener. They are widely available for sale and generally you decide what you want by leaf and flower size – some are much smaller in both than others – and by colour rather than searching out particular named cultivars.
???????????????????????????????Colours are from white through the whole gamut of pinks to pure reds. The closest to blue is lilac and the closest to orange is more coral in tone. Nor are there pure yellows. Just white with a green or yellow toned throat.

We have plantings of the fine leafed Kurume azaleas from Japan which are now over 60 years old. At about 45 years of age, Mark decided they needed some attention and rather than cutting them back hard to rejuvenate them, he set upon a course of limbing them up. It is a constant task but we take out all the lower growth and have them as an undulating carpet of blooms just above head height.

A garden visitor from Kurume came a few years ago. He spoke no English and we speak no Japanese but he managed to convey the information to us that our Kurumes were simply astounding for their age. But, and there is always a but, we should be taking better care of them. I have spent a prodigious amount of time grooming out dead twiggy bits and an excess of lichen ever since. Some gardeners choose to use copper sprays or lime sulphur to combat lichen build up on older plants.

All azaleas are rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas. In other words, azaleas are a separate section of the rhododendron family. They then divide further into the deciduous azaleas (botanically Pentanthera) and the evergreen azaleas (at least mostly evergreen, the Tsutsuji or Tsustusti azaleas originating from Japan).

Vibrant colour in late October from deciduous azaleas

Vibrant colour in late October from deciduous azaleas

Deciduous azaleas are a different branch of the family altogether and many look more like rhododendrons with their full trusses. They are often referred to as Azalea mollis or Ilam azaleas in this country. Some bring the most wonderfully vibrant colour into the spring garden, bordering on vulgar if not placed well. You don’t get the same bright oranges in any rhododendron that I know of and the intense yellows, tangerines and reds make a big statement. For those of more refined sensibility, there are also pastels and whites. Many are strongly scented.

Deciduous azaleas are more tolerant of heavy, wet soils – even occasional flooding – and of full sun than their rhododendron cousins. Surround them with lots of green is my advice, and let them have their time to star in all their glory.

The problem with deciduous azaleas is that when they are not in flower in mid spring, they tend to be pretty anonymous plants. And in humid climates, they are inclined to get mildewed foliage by the end of summer so are not plants of great beauty in small gardens.

Nor are they always easy to source. Garden centres really only have a three week selling time on them when they are in flower because few will impulse buy outside that show time. So buy plants when you see them on offer, is my advice, rather than waiting until the precise moment you are ready to plant them.

Our garden might look a bit sad and empty without the strong showing from the azaleas.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.