Azaleas are a subset of rhododendrons, regarded by many to be one of the most important plant families. They are a category of smaller-leaved, generally smaller and more “twiggy” shrubs.
The history of these plants is complex and fascinating and includes its fair share of Victorian derring-do. However, all that the practical gardener really needs to know is what they need to thrive.
Acid soil is a must with nearly all of these shrubs, but if you lack this, containers and raised beds can work just as well. Ideal soils are moist, humus-rich and acidic, with good drainage.
All azaleas are surface-rooting, which means that when planted, soil should just cover the root ball. A bonus of this is that it’s quite straightforward to move them, should you need to.
Maintenance is limited and easy. Cut off dead flowers and stalks soon after flowering, as this will stimulate new growth. Otherwise, prune lightly to maintain the desired shape.
As to the choice of species or variety, this depends on the look you wish to create, and what will work best in your garden. Here are a few examples of outstanding performers:
Rhododendron “Cecile” is a vigorous deciduous azalea which achieves a height and spread of 2.2m. It produces clear, salmon-pink flowers in late spring and early summer.
Rhododendron “Homebush” is a compact variety with a bushy habit. It achieves a height and spread of 1.5m and in late spring produces trusses of bright pink flowers. It’s an excellent choice for container growing.
Rhododendron “Narcissiflorum” is a wonderful garden plant producing sweetly-scented pale yellow flowers from spring into early summer.
Among the evergreens, Rhododendron “Palestrina” produces delicate white flowers, while those of “Beethove” or “Vuykk’s Scarlet” are pink and crimson scarlet respectively.
Hardy evergreen or Japanese azaleas are some of the most colourful spring-flowering shrubs, all requiring acid soil and moist leafy conditions. They thrive in light shade for their shallow roots, but will tolerate full sun if their roots are consistently moist.