Tag Archives: deciduous azaleas

The colours of November

Almond Icing - CopyThe deciduous azaleas certainly add vibrancy to the late spring garden as we enter November. They are not all so breathtakingly unsubtle. But I guess, were a plant to think like a human, if you are going to spend 11 months of the year being pretty insignificant, you might as well make a loud statement when it is your time to star.

In a small garden, deciduous azaleas are more back-of-the-border plants than specimen glories. They lack good structure and form and their foliage is rarely remarkable. They are prone to developing mildew on the leaves as summer progresses, certainly here in the mid north and I believe it gets worse the warmer the climate. Then the leaves drop in autumn – giving autumn colour in colder climates but not here – and all winter there is just a very plain, twiggy looking shrub.

They certainly don’t fit into a heavily-styled all year round garden where structure is deemed to be more important than seasonal colour. For these are plants that shout out to be noticed in flower and ignored the rest of the year.

DSC02020R - CopyThe area of our garden that we refer to as ‘the park’ was first planted in the early 1950s, in the style then promoted by the New Zealand Rhododendron Association. Plants stand in solitary splendour which gives them their own space, plenty of air movement and the ability to be viewed from all aspects. While it has changed and matured over the intervening six decades, the deciduous azaleas still thrive in this environment with minimal attention.

We find they are more tolerant of heavier, wetter soils close to the stream than their evergreen rhododendron cousins, which can’t abide wet feet. Equally, we have seen them thriving very close to the coast. And when they bloom, their vibrant colours are surrounded by plenty of green which removes the need to worry about clashes. We do not get the same intensity of yellow, orange, tangerine and plum colours with big floral display in many evergreen rhododendrons.


Many deciduous azaleas are strongly scented and this does not appear to be linked to colour as it often is in the wider rhododendron family where scented varieties are commonly in the whites and paler hues. But for those of more refined sensibilities, not all deciduous azaleas are in bright, unsubtle colours. Mark’s late father liked the softer colours and colour mixes, so we have some lovely varieties in paler apricot, almond and cream or white shades. Every year, we are delighted by the combination of a large old lilac bush that survives and flowers on despite this not being an area renowned for growing the syringia family, its many lilac plumes intermingling with a soft apricot azalea.

unnamed seedling - CopyAzaleas are all part of the wider rhododendron family. Evergreen ones originate from Japan while the deciduous azaleas are much more widespread in the temperate world, being found in China, Japan, Korea, southern Russia and North America. Most of what are grown now are hybrids with very mixed genetics.They are often inaccurately referred to as Ilam azaleas or azalea mollis in this country. “Mollis” refers to a particular cross deriving from A. molle and A. japonicum, originating from early plant breeders in Holland and Belgium. The Ilam azaleas came from the breeding done in Christchurch but have strong links to the Exbury azaleas, also referred to as the Knap Hill hybrids. Then there are the Ghent azaleas, which originated from that area in Belgium. Confused? It is really difficult to disentangle when in fact the most accurate description is simply to refer to them as “deciduous azaleas”.

If you are a keen and patient gardener, you can raise them from fresh seed and you will get variation in the offspring. If you want instant plants, buy them when you see them offered for sale because they are not usually available from garden centres all year round.

Denis Hughes at Blue Mountain Nurseries in Tapanui, Southland, has been breeding, selecting and selling deciduous azaleas for many years. They are grown more widely in the South Island but will flower just as freely in the north. The nursery is now in the hands of his son, Chris, and they continue to offer a mailorder service, including azaleas.

Val's Choice - CopyFirst published in the November issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

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.

Plant Collector – Azalea mollis

Look at me! Look at me! Azalea mollis

Look at me! Look at me! Azalea mollis

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.