When is a Rhododendron not a Rhododendron? The answer is when the plant in question is an Azalea.
The Rhododendron family is huge and like any large family it has many branches and sub-branches and claims of kinship can be complicated and even contentious. One large division is between Azaleas and Rhododendrons. All Azaleas are in fact members of the Rhododendron family and I would argue they make up some of the most garden worthy members. If they were part of my family I’d certainly invite them to my parties!
Many people’s image of rhododendrons are of large sprawling evergreen shrubs that grace the spreading woodlands or lawns around stately homes. Often, because they are evergreen they have a reputation of short lived interest. Azaleas tend to be somewhat smaller that rhododendrons and although all rhododendrons are evergreen there are many deciduous Azaleas.
Amongst the deciduous Azaleas the Ghent, Knaphill and Mollis types are worth seeking out. They have excellent autumn colour and although sometimes the flowers can be individually small they come in bright and sunny colours that make up for any diminutive flower size. R. luteum is a yellow flowered species that has a heady scent which it has imparted to many of its
Deciduous Azaleas are all hardy and can grow up to one and a half to two metres in ten years. They can be planted in sun or light shade in and acid soil or compost and propagated easily from layers, cuttings or division. A few of them can be prone to mildew especially in dry weather so a small blast of fungicide or a foliage feed of calcified seaweed always comes in handy. If you have room for a selection of more than one plant then you can have flower and scent from April until July.
My favourite is the double yellow flowered R. narcissiflorum which flowers in May and June and has attractive foliage in autumn and a good scent. More dainty and compact are the evergreen Japanese Azaleas which represent
probably the highest proportion of Azaleas grown in the trade. This is because many of them are grown for sale as house plants, particularly around Christmas. These varieties are not hardy, though there are many which are. All of them have small foliage which sometimes colours in winter though they are evergreen. A typical specimen might reach a metre over ten years making them suitable for planting in containers and even window boxes. They prefer more shade and moisture than the deciduous types and resent exposure to cold winds.
Evergreen Azaleas make good edging for borders or along paths. Their dense growth will, over time, suppress weeds which makes them an excellent ground cover. They can be pruned pack easily and recover well. Amongst my favourites is the bright pink ‘Hinomayo’ which looks wonderful in large drifts.
Generally both types of Azalea make excellent companions for other acid or shade lovers especially magnolias, acers and ferns. Some may be loud and brash, some dainty and beautiful but all Azaleas have some quality that is sure to recommend them. After all…family is family!