Tag Archives: evergreen azaleas

Evergreen azaleas – unsung garden heroes

You can have any colour you like, as long as it is pink, white, red, lilac or coral

You can have any colour you like, as long as it is pink, white, red, lilac or coral

Evergreen azaleas are a bit of an unsung garden hero, really. There can’t be many more obliging, hard working plants. Generally regarded as playing second fiddle to their more aristocratic rhododendron family members, they seem to have followed their slide down towards oblivion in recent times.  Yet they are such a forgiving plant, tolerant of a wide range of conditions from full sun to almost full shade – as long as it is high shade. They also grow well even where there is a lot of root competition. They can be featured in their own right or they can be a backdrop. And if you have enough different types, the flowering extends for much of the year, though the majority peak for us in September to early October. I tracked the blooms and found the latest varieties still with blooms near Christmas and the first ones showing colour in early March this year. That is a pretty impressive record.

046 (3)I am on the ‘Mission of 78 Azaleas’. Some years ago, Mark did a cuttings run from plants here and they had reached the point where they really, truly did need planting out. I found homes for about half of them last spring, but there are still 35 sitting out under the shade cloth, looking reproachfully at me and begging to be given permanent homes this winter.* I shall do it this very month. I swear I will.  From this, you may deduce that azaleas are one of our backbone plants in the garden, threaded through quite large areas.

The $2000 azalea bonsai, spotted in Foshan, China

The $2000 azalea bonsai, spotted in Foshan, China

Not only are azaleas forgiving, they are also remarkably versatile. This is a plant family that is particularly revered in their homelands of China and Japan and I could not help but marvel at the bonsai specimen we recently saw in Foshan with a price tag of RMB9800 – which equates to about $2000 in our money! I admired the clipped azalea hedge kept to about knee height that I saw in the garden at Wairere Nursery near Gordonton a few years ago. Last time I visited Hollard’s Garden near Kaponga, it appeared that every last azalea (and they must have a similar number to us) had been clipped to a tidy, tight mound after flowering. This is a style decision and may appeal to folk who prefer their plants to conform to a prescribed standard.

We have taken a different track with some of our larger plants. While slow growing, some can reach a couple of metres in height after a few decades and they can get a bit formless and scruffy. The usual approach is to cut them off close to the ground and let them ‘come again’. Do this sort of hard pruning in winter or very early spring if you want to go down that track. But we like to feature the shapes of our mature plants and to use them to create a middle layer in our garden – lower than the trees but well above ground level. We shape, lift and thin and this gives us an undulating carpet of colour just above head height.  It takes a bit of work. The plants keep shooting from the base so I try and get around each spring and rub off the new growth and I remove any dead wood at the same time.

007 (11)I like to tell the story of a knowledgeable Japanese garden visitor. He came from Kurume and we have a fair number of very small leafed, small flowered Kurume azaleas. He had no English and we have no Japanese, but he managed to convey to us that our Kurumes were simply astounding in their stature and shape but that we needed to take better care of them. He was pointing to the grey lichen infestation in the canopy of a patch growing in full sun. While it is often recommended that you spray for this – lime sulphur or copper is the usual treatment – it is no mean feat to spray above your head height and we are consciously trying to avoid spraying. So I am on a long term campaign – year three into what may be a five year project. In late spring, I manoeuvre my way around on the ladder to take out maybe 20% of the old growth which is most heavily infested, without losing the canopy effect. They do look better for it, but I am grateful that it is only one area that needs this attention.

Evergreen azaleas are much easier to propagate than rhododendrons and are worth a try after the new growth has hardened in summer. Alternatively you can raise seed, as Mark’s father did here to bulk up the plantings without having to buy them. They won’t grow true from seed, but we like the variation we have as a result and the mass of bloom we get is unsurpassed.

Pink Ice is simply lustrous in bloom, but turns to mush in heavy rain. The smaller flowered varieties are more weather hardy.

Pink Ice is simply lustrous in bloom, but turns to mush in heavy rain. The smaller flowered varieties are more weather hardy.

First published in the July issue of New Zealand Gardener and reproduced here with their agreement. 

* Progress is being made. I am down to 24 plants looking at me reproachfully in the nursery.

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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.