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  HOME AND GARDEN » House Plants  

Plants for your home (By Mary Efanti)

Azalea "Rhododendron"

Origin and Description

Azaleas are native to the cool mountainous regions of Japan, China, and India, which gives a clue to their care preferences. In the wild they can grow to very large shrubs; cultivated forms are sometimes sold as standard trees - with the plants on top of long trunks. A tremendous number of species and horticultural varieties are available, many of which may be grown as pot plants. Extremely popular houseplants, azaleas are great value if given the correct care and conditions.

The azalea per se is hard to describe, as it may be a tiny 8" spreading groundcover, or a 20' shrub. There are, in fact, more than 3000 different species, hybrids and cultivars of Rhododendron grown in the U.S. alone. In any case, the azaleas are woody stemmed shrubs, prized for their characteristic, usually prolific, often fragrant, trumpet shaped flowers. These may be only 1/2", or more than 4" across. They come usually in shades of pink, white, purple, orange and red, and may be freckled, variegated, single or double. Many azalea varieties cultivated for landscape use are evergreen, but there are plenty of deciduous ones too. Azaleas are rhododendrons, but all rhododendrons are not azaleas. The common names are often interchanged, but some would restrict "azalea" to those species whose flowers have 5 stamens and use "rhododendron" for the species with 10 or more stamens.



Potted azalea plants are usually purchased at Easter when they are a mass of buds and flowers. The garment of color is retained for weeks if the plant is kept constantly moist. Most people have a particular color in mind when they buy azaleas. One way to guarantee the color you want is to buy flowering plants. You will be sure to get the right color, and if you are buying several you can see if they match or blend. To get the most impact, set out blocks or sweeps of the same selection. Ten types scattered across the front of your house will be colorful but chaotic.


When choosing the best spot to plant, take the sun into account. Azaleas like plenty of morning light. However, avoid areas that get midday or hot afternoon sun--plants in full sun are susceptible to lacebugs and spider mites. Consider the size of your plants. Not all azaleas are low-growing shrubs. Don't crowd new plants together; space them for the future, not for instant effect.


Azaleas need acid soil. Adding plenty of leaf mold, peat moss, or bark can help create the ideal environment. This is particularly important if you're placing the plants near your home's foundation, where lime can leach out of the concrete and neutralize acid soils. Limestone gravel used for drainage around your home can also cause soil to be too alkaline.In alkaline soils, you may want to try growing a few specimens in containers.

Immediately after flowering in Spring is the best time to fertilise with an Azalea fertiliser.

Moisture. Avoid planting azaleas near downspouts or areas that stay damp. In heavy clay soil, plant them almost on top of the ground, building soil up on the sides of the root ball. It is important to mulch Azaleas to keep in the moisture - a new mulching material should be added after fertilising. Pine needles, oak leaves, shredded bark, leaf mould all about 5cm thick, is quite good mulch and keeps the moisture around the roots of the plant.

During dry spells soak them thoroughly every 7 to 10 days, and be sure that the water reaches all the way to the bottom roots.

Planting in clay.
Dig a hole as deep as the root ball and twice as wide. Add soil enriched with organic matter to the hole so that the top of the root ball will sit 4 inches above ground level. Place the root ball in the hole, and build up the soil on the sides. Planting high gives the shrub the drainage it needs, but you will need to water frequently.

Pruning is not important, but if one wants to shape the plants, immediately after flowering is the best time.Avoid the urge to shear your plants into round balls or other geometric forms. Azaleas look best when allowed to grow to their natural mounded shape. Limit pruning to removing long, stray branches. Older plants that have become leggy may benefit from pruning branches from the main trunk in staggered lengths. If you have to prune hard every year, you probably have the wrong azalea for that location, or your plants are too close together.

Azaleas are grown from seed and propagated by stem cuttings. The amateur gardener will not have much success in increasing his stock by either method. It is better to buy new plants, as they are needed.

Pest Control
Azaleas have few pests and diseases. Seek advice from your local nursery before using a fungicide, pesticide or herbicide.

Don't worry when a few leaves turn yellow and drop off, especially in the fall. All evergreens drop some leaves during the year. If autumn is mild, azaleas will often bloom. There is nothing you can do to prevent this. Enjoy the fall blooms, because flowering could be sparse the following spring.


Mary Efanti




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