Plant Profile: Deciduous Azaleas

Spring is in full swing! Flowers are blooming, veggie gardens are popping up green everywhere, and all the birds are back, building nests anyplace that stays still long enough. I’ve seen robins with new bunches of babies already! Hummingbirds are here too, drinking sweet nectar from just about every blossom imaginable.

Some of the most beautiful and eye-catching flowers for mid-spring blooms are found on various species of Deciduous Azaleas. Rhododendron viscosum, our native Swamp Azalea, and many other species and hybrids are unobtrusive and quiet for most of the year, but they burst into a riot of color during late May, brightening even the darkest corners of the landscape. They range in height from anywhere between 3 and 12 feet tall and wide, and will thrive in all but the deepest shade, so you’re sure to find one that will fit that space in the garden you just can’t figure out what to do with. Wet areas are no problem at all for these beauties; they are happy anywhere except incredibly dry soil. These beautiful plants give us in the northeast the opportunity for the brilliant oranges and yellows of the less-hardy western rhododendrons that we can only dream of growing here.

When young, deciduous azaleas can be rather odd looking. Tufts of blossoms and leaves borne on tall, bare twigs that don’t seem strong enough to support them. Given some time and care, in the right spot, they turn into beautiful, full shrubs with a unique branching structure. They are an excellent plant for the back of the garden, where they can display their full beauty before many other perennials or smaller shrubs make their grand appearance later in the summer.

Flower color ranges from pure white to yellow, to pinks and purples, and even bright reds and oranges. There are bi- and tri-color selections that offer a truly unique appearance. The blossoms themselves seem super-saturated with color; no matter the shade, it is one of the most vibrant displays in the garden. If enough varieties are planted, these beautiful flowers can be enjoyed from late May through July. The ‘Weston’ series of deciduous azalea bloom in shades of pink, orange, and yellow in mid-July, adding a splash of spring color to the summer garden. Seeing azalea flowers can be an unexpected and pleasant surprise when one is not expecting them.

Excellent varieties include ‘Gibraltar’ and ‘Mollis’, a bright orange and salmon colored selection, respectively, the Korean Azalea (R. yeodense v. poukhanense), blooming a beautiful lavender (the compact form is bright magenta!) and the ‘Lights’ Series. Brilliant colors, including ‘Northern Hi-Lights’, a bi-color of white and yellow, and ‘Tri-Lights’, a tri-color pink, yellow, and white bloom. Our native Swamp Azaleas have selections of either white or pink, and are very well adapted to growing in the soggier parts of the landscape.

Fall foliage in deciduous azaleas is not to be ignored either. Before dropping, the leaves turn shades of yellow, orange, red, and nearly purple. Truly a beautiful sight, and an excellent substitution for the non-native, invasive Burning Bush. I consider them a far superior substitute, in fact, as they come with those beautiful spring flowers! You won’t find blossoms like those on any Euonymus!

A wonderful road trip this time of year is up to Boothbay and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. They have an amazing collection of rhododendrons and azaleas, all of which should be in full bloom now. It’s a must-see for any gardener!